Writers hear the phrase ‘write what you know’ all the time, but what does that really mean? Does it mean you can’t write about something you haven’t personally experienced? I certainly hope not. I write mysteries–usually murder mysteries–and I have never known anyone who was murdered. I’ve never helped solve a murder case. Nor have I ever murdered anyone.

This topic reared its head this morning, after someone posted in a Facebook group about a good historical mystery novel set in Germany during WWII. That caught my interest because I love reading that type of book. I researched the book on Goodreads and Amazon to see if I would like it. It had lots of great reviews and a few negative reviews. One review stood out, because in it the reviewer slammed the writer for being an American. She said she doesn’t understand why Americans set books in foreign countries that they know nothing about. That really upset me. I felt bad for the author, and it hit me, too, because I write books set in France and I’ve never been there. I’ve written books set in Germany, too. I’ve been to Germany many times and was even born there, but I didn’t grow up there. Does that mean I know nothing?

I’ve written books where the characters travel back in time. Uh, I’ve never done that.

I wrote a book set in Germany and the Sudetenland during WWII. I wasn’t even born then.

And what about all the historical books set in the Middle Ages or during the American Civil War, and the books set in fantasy worlds? The authors of those books didn’t live in those places or times, either.

People write biographical books about famous people (or not so famous people) they’ve never met. Some of the characters lived and died centuries before the writer was born. Other people write stories about witches and wizards or ghosts and demons.

I think the statement ‘write what you know’ isn’t about writing only the things you’ve personally experienced, but more about writing about experiences, feelings, perceptions, interests, etc. that you know something about, and writing about things that you can research or dream-up. Yes, dream-up, because writing fiction is sometimes about creating something that no one knows anything about.