In the process of research today, I was trying to find a specific type of establishment in NYC that would work for my story. Now, I've been to NYC briefly and plan to go back, but I don't have the option to run spend several days there just for story research. It would be nice, but let's face reality: when you have kids at home and a job and such and you aren't the owner of Trump Tower with a private jet, there are restrictions on doing such things.
Internet research wasn't working well. I had the look in my head for the place I needed but try putting that in a search engine. It didn't work well. Finally, I went to Yahoo Answers and asked people who would know: NYC residents. I answer lots of questions there about books and writing and sometimes other subjects, so I figured getting a touch of return help would be nice.
The first answer I received started by saying: "The first rule of writing ... write what you know."
Hm. Yes, that's helpful. Thanks so much. He did also mention a name of a place that might work but I was rather annoyed at the inference that I didn't know what I was doing that I didn't bother to check the place. [Luckily, the second answer was exactly what I was looking for! He'll get 10 points for being not rude and very helpful.]
Write what you know. So he meant I shouldn't put my character in New York City since I don't know it well? Or that I should use only the places in the city I do personally know? I am using one, a small music venue I enjoyed, if it matters. I know the feel of the city enough for the story. I know enough that it needs to be mainly set in Manhattan instead of another borough. My main character is heavily into the music industry. Let's see, if I can only write about the places I've been long enough to write with any real detail about them, the story would have to be set in Illinois, Texas, Massachusetts, Idaho, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Germany. None of those work real well for this character. Actually, none of them work at all. Yes, I set Rehearsal in MA but it worked for them. Or does that mean I can't write about a character in the music industry since I've never lived in any of the three big music industry spots in the US? Not to mention I've never been involved in the music industry itself. That's what research is for!
I'd like to tell this "top contributor" that writing what you know does not mean using only settings you know first hand. How limited would that make the literary world? What about historical fiction? Should no one write about time periods they didn't live in? How sad would it be to lose all those magnificent stories of the past?
Writing what you know is much deeper than that. It's writing the truths you've learned, the things you've seen, the thoughts you've had, and feelings you've felt. It's putting yourself IN your work and adding all those luscious true-to-life things that make books "real" instead of simply described. It doesn't mean write about your life as a memoir, which is okay also, but limiting. It means to take those things and turn them into fiction that echoes real life, that shares yourself and your experiences.
I write what I know. I have always studied people and families and relationships to watch what makes them work or not work. I make note of societal issues that stand out in my mind because maybe I have some valuable thoughts or ideas to share about them. I think things through. I know things. I see things happen and the effects of those happenings. I write about them. It's fiction, of course. I use them differently than they were in real life but the same -- the same concepts, the same issues, the same relationships. Or different relationships based on how things might have worked "if" only....
THAT is writing what you know. Is my story invalidated because I don't know which NYC restaurant has the look and location I need for a certain scene? I don't think so. The story is about love, loss, despair, hanging on, and letting go -- all things I do know first hand. If I was doing a documentary about NYC, then I would see his point. Otherwise, it's way off base. So is anyone else who tells a writer not to do a story in a place she's never been. That would throw out all sci fi and fantasy also, wouldn't it?
Write what you know INSIDE. Write what you FEEL. Write what matters to you, what you care about. Use details from your everyday life such as the moist breeze blowing against your cheek while standing on a beach, or the pounding, clacking noise of a nearby train station, or the way you feel when someone takes your hand and says it's going to be all right. Use that. Use your own reality. And put it anywhere in the world your character needs to be. The rest can be researched.