It's a maxim authors hear all the time: Write what you know. While there's nothing wrong with writing what you know, what this advice doesn't say is that you should be always learning more. And sometimes you learn that "more" because you want to write about it.
I'm a good example. As I was starting to write my first story, a friend (someone no longer on my contacts list) told me I was crazy, writing from the point of view of a gay teenager. "Write what you know," she admonished me, as if she knew.
The story in that first book (A Secret Edge, 2007) revolves around a sixteen-year-old track star who's figuring out that he's gay and trying to figure out what that will mean for him. The initial reviews were gratifying for two reasons: one, reviewers and readers really liked the book; two, whenever reviews mentioned the book's author, they used male pronouns. They had assumed I was a gay man. I took advantage of an early radio interview (1 in 10, Boston) to come out as a straight woman.
Since then, other reviewers have assumed I was a man. Once they've been disabused of this impression, some have asked me outright how I manage to write as though I were a gay, male teenager.
The truth is that I did have a few things going for me, in terms of what I knew before I started. One was that I had already figured out that my best fiction writing voice is that of a teenager. Another was that I had several gay friends, especially when living in New York City just as the AIDS crisis was getting going (I know; I'm dating myself, here), so I had at least a starting point of understanding what the stigma, the prejudice, and the lifestyle were like. Third, I'd grown up with all brothers. Three of them. They aren't gay, but I'm very familiar with the male teen gestalt. Fourth, I'd ran track, myself, in high school—short dash and relay, just as I had my protagonist do.
And, all right, there's one more advantage. It's one that would have helped me if I'd chosen to write about straight teenage girls, but I wanted a more open stage. And that advantage? I know what it's like to want a man.
So that's the sum total of what I knew. And to be honest, I didn't stray very far away from my base knowledge in that first book, and I think that was wise. I plumbed my existing knowledge of classical music, comparative religion, track, and classic film, weaving the topics into the story. So you could really say that for A Secret Edge, I mostly wrote what I knew.
But what about Thinking Straight, which follows a gay teen's days inside an "ex-gay" camp? Or A Question of Manhood, which features an important character who's an expert in dog behavior? (I'm a cat person, myself.) Or Educating Simon, which shows the effects that synesthesia and autism have on a teen and his family, throwing in the subculture of Straight Edge and the admissions process for Oxford University for good measure? I knew little or nothing about any of these topics when I started writing the books that feature them. But I know a lot more about them now.
I could have written more stories like A Secret Edge, which is a straightforward (no pun intended) romance, rather sweet, short, very accessible. All right, it opens with a boy's wet dream, but—hey, girls can have sexy dreams, too. And there would have been nothing wrong with more books like that one. But having written that story, I was warmed up. I knew I could run a more challenging race. And I started to pull in more and more of what I didn't know. Or, what I hadn't known, before working on each book.
The approach that has served me well, as I've included more topics I had to research, is that by the time I do the writing, I know much more about each of those new (to me) topics than I will ever include in the story. I do the research (thank goodness for the Internet!), collect information, sift through it for bits I want to use, go back and pull in other bits that fit into the plot as it was unfolding, and leave the rest behind. Or, leave it out of the story.
But those bits I don't use aren't wasted. If you look on the individual page for any of my books (other than that first one, or the one that isn't yet released), you'll see a section called Digging Deeper. This is adjunct reading for anyone whose imagination was caught by unusual topics I had included in the story. Sometimes, as I'm working on a Digging Deeper document, I find I need to do just a little more research to round it out and make it worth reading. That is, I need to know more.
So what kind of writing do you want to do? Are you happy turning out books whose story lines vary just enough to change the characters' names? Nothing wrong with that, and you can mostly write what you know. If you do it well, you'll have a good career in front of you. Or do you want to write stories that expand not only your readers' worlds, but also your own? If the latter, then start with what you know. But don't stop there.