My thoughts exactly. My profs pounded the old "write what you know" bit and I was always bothered by it too. Isn't that what solid research is all about? Eventually, after extensive research of a topic, a writer would be able to write what he/she knows, but in my opinion, to base the writing solely on life experiences would be to limit creativity. My background isn't criminology or forensic science, yet I've had professionals in those fields read my book and state that my scenes feel as real as if they were there. For me that's the goal, to make the reader (especially if they are professionals in that field) believe and get drawn into the story.
There are other ways of looking at this. Not so much the 'facts' that you know, but the honest emotions. My first novel is all about opportunity - how some people see opportunity in everything and others don't recognize it when it's slammed over their heads. I don't have a lot of experience with crime (although more than I like to admit) but I sure know a lot about missing opportunities.
Of course, as writers we have to be able to imagine things from many points of view and different sets of experience, it's not a bad idea to look closely at what you "know" and write about that.
Stephen King had a good comment along this line. To him, "write what you know" extends beyond the story itself, or no one would write science fiction, and few would write murder mysteries. In King's idea, if you're a butcher, and have a lot of insights into the butcher business, make a character a butcher, or make the business somehow important in the story. Writing what you know can come into play in many different places and flavors.
I think writers should do whatever they feel passionate about - but often that will be something they know about.
I was a lawyer for ten years working with children in care so I couldn't resist setting my first book in that world. Could another with no experience have done it? With the right research and plenty of imagination I'm sure they could...but would they have felt so driven to tell the story?
Umm difficult one. I know why people say "Write what you know", but surely if you have researched something you do then know about it. I guess you have to research what you have not personally experienced, to a certain extent, but as long as people can empathise with a situation you can almost always write how someone would react as there is never a definite write or wrong way to react to certain situations. I suppose it is easier to convey a story you have first hand experience in as you do not need to do much research, but if I wanted to write only what I had personally exerienced or been involved with that would take some of the magic out of writing for me, it would be more of a doumentary. It is more satisfying to embellish and think of all the possibilities instead to sticking to reality, well it is for me anyway.
that sounds very sensible. I am doing that at the moment. Placing my story in England was a big step for me. but I didn't have an alternative. I've lived here too long. Hence, place has become real for me. setting is easier to write about also. What with the wind swept moors and the horrid weather! I always joke that I know what killed Cathy in Wuthering Heights--THE WEATHER!
Also, I agree about the job--it's better if you can write with some knowledge about what your characters do and so on. and I agree that write what you know has so many facets to it.
I have never interpreted that to mean that only murderers could write crime fiction or vampires horror stories. I can hardly travel back to the middle ages (though I am middle aged myself :-) To me it's a bit more estoteric. Write about the emotions you are intimate with. Experiences that can be translated into the protagonist's experiences. What has gone on in your head through the traumas of your life. (I don't know about you, but sometimes when bad things happen to me, something in the back of my brain says to remember how this felt so I can use it later. Sick. In others this is a pyschosis. In writers it's backstory.) That's the stuff you know.
Your parenthetical comment is right on! My wife recently fell on the ice and suffered a concussion. That was a very scary afternoon, but it was nothing like anything I had ever seen in fiction. Although I was very concerned and worried, I did find myself thinking that I need to write about this. I learned so much that I never would have from research alone and most of it was about the emotions and human interaction including the huge relief when she was her normal self the next day.
Your best work is going to be about the subjects that you love. You can find out the details. I wrote a succesful book that took place in a ski resort. I've never been skiing in my life, but I loved the down hill fun. I even liked breaking my (character's) leg.