Is it true you have to write what you know?

Question from a reader
I am an aspiring author (I checked out your FAQ page so don't worry about me asking you to read something of mine). I loved Girl, Stolen! I wanted to ask how you wrote about Cheyenne being blind? I was wondering if you knew someone who was blind, if you did extensive research, or if you just trusted your gut and thought about how you would feel? I was reading something from another author who said you should only write about things you've experienced, but as a pretty sheltered 16 year old there isn't a lot I've experienced. I was wondering if you followed the same rule.

My answer
You don’t have to write only what you know. I’ve heard “write what you want to know” and I think that’s more true.

Years ago, before I was published, I started writing a book from the POV of two middle-aged male Southerners who are identical twins, one of whom is paralyzed. (Not sure I had even been to the South - and I was younger, female, and not paralyzed. Oh, and not a twin.) That wasn’t the best idea. I think I thought it was more “writerly” to write a character I totally had to make up.

I am not blind and at the time I started writing Girl, Stolen, I did not know anyone who was. But I had just seen a news story that was basically the first few minutes of Girl, Stolen (the real girl was let go after 10 minutes) and I knew it would make a great book.

I think if you are going to write about someone who is not like you (especially someone who is in the minority), you should try really hard to get it right. So while I could walk around my house with eyes closed and think about what it would be like to be blind, I knew that wasn’t enough. So:
- I read books by people who had gone blind. (And I was lucky, because there are a LOT! Understandably, it’s a dramatic thing)
- I interviewed blind people and asked them to read the book when it was done.
- I got a white cane and learned basic caning technique.
- I went to the guide dog school for the blind and spent a day there.

And I also trusted my gut and thought about how I would feel.

I think it’s good to experience something yourself if you can. I have fired a gun, I have been handcuffed, and I have learned how to pick my way out of handcuffs with a bobby pin. When a copyeditor questioned whether the killer could really put a body under the kitchen sink, I pulled out everything and climbed in and took a selfie.

So you can combine trusting your gut, thinking about it logically, doing research, interviewing people, and having real life experiences. If you are writing fantasy, it is likely you are never going to experience what it is like to be a were-dragon or cast spells or whatever. So that’s going to be more thinking about it and trusting your gut.

I was a pretty sheltered 16 year old myself. Nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to become a serial killer to write about them (or do you…?). (Nope, pretty sure you don’t.)
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Is it even possible to write anything you don't know? You can't dream about something you don't know. It's a difference between writing what you know well and writing what you know from movies and wikipedia.
I always wonder where the line of necessary research is. I'm working on a project about a black wheelchair user competing in a beauty pageant. I'll never be black and I probably won't ever be a wheelchair user. I could compete in a beauty pageant and gain helpful experience. But I don't want to take the time to do that. So I interviewed two friends, one black and one white, who competed in beauty pageants instead. I interviewed a wheelchair user former prom queen friend. I found a national network for people with my character's medical history. Then I emailed their president and she gave me feedback on how a character with that medical history might see certain parts of the pageant plot. I'm worried about writing a beauty pageant that works like a beauty pageant, but you never see reviews complaining that the author portrayed a hobby wrong. It's always about the character race, ability, etc.
More and more, I like to get all of it right. But then I remind myself I don't need my person or my scenario to be a stand in for all beauty pageants or people of color or whatever - it just has to be right for that pageant or that person.
Even if you're writing fantasy, you can still use your real life experience and/or knowledge to influence your magic. I once read a fantasy novel about a girl whose magic was based on the power of the wind. The author was a meteorologist.