Yes, the title is correct. Rather than “write what you know,” I believe you should ”know what you write.”
I’m a native New Yorker, transplanted to the West Coast (and now in New England.) In my early writing classes I was told, “write what you know.” What did that mean? I couldn’t write about Alabama or Vancouver because I wasn’t from there?
When I was sixteen, I was strolling through Manhattan, minding my own business. I came across a group of tourists looking up and pointing, shooting pictures at something in the sky. What was it? I looked up and realized they were photographing a tall building. Big deal. So I walked to the building in question and saw a plaque that read Empire State Building. Aha. This was the famous Empire State Building.
I lived in NYC but didn’t even appreciate what was around me. On the other hand, when I moved to San Diego, I scouted out every attraction, neighborhood, restaurant, park and beach within the first two months. I knew San Diego better than San Diegans and often surprised them with my knowledge. My point is that growing up in or living in a place is not necessarily “knowing” a place.
In other blogs I talked about the importance of research. Here is a perfect place for it. You don’t need to set a story in the place you grew up in (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) You can set a story anywhere you like, but, and I repeat, but, you must visit that place to make it authentic.
An example from my upcoming book, Deadly Provenance: “They drove on the Avenue de la Grande Armée, right up to and around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elyseés to the Place de la Concorde with the tall obelisk at its center. Henri then turned left into a steady stream of traffic on the Rue de Rivoli, made a dizzying series of rights and lefts and wound up on a narrow alley way called Rue des Pretres-Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, which Maggie did not even attempt to pronounce. He pulled the Peugeot onto the sidewalk in front of a tiny building with glass front: Le Relais du Louvre, their hotel.”
I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have visited a number of times. Can you tell?
If you’re writing about a fictional town, you can have fictional streets and neighborhoods, fictional bars and fictional buildings. But if you’re writing about a real city, you need to make it authentic, by visiting. Maps on the Internet can help, but places change, restaurants close, old houses are torn down and replaced by condos. You must see it first-hand. This is especially important if you want to appeal to readers who actually live there. They will call you on your mistakes.
A dilemma I encountered when writing about Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, was how did it look back then? First of all it was called Washington City, an important note that would have bollixed up everything, had I gotten it wrong. Since I couldn’t transport myself back to Washington City in 1860 (darn), I lucked out when I chanced upon a book called “A Guide to Civil War Washington.” Thank you author, Stephen M. Forman! In this little gem were maps of the different areas in the District, including street names and famous attractions like Ford’s Theatre. Without this book, I would have had to research maps of the time and spent lots of hours at the Library of Congress, if I could get special permission. Whew.
One caveat about the benefit of actually living in the place you’re writing about is that you will know the “locals” better. Their habits, peculiarities, popular night spots, and idiosyncrasies of speech. But this is a post for another time.
For now, “write what you know” is not bad advice. “Know what you write” might be better.