Okay, my best take on the old writing adage “write what you know.” I tried to find its origin, but a Google search didn’t turn up anything definite (was it Twain or maybe Faulkner?). So I’ll leave it at that.
At first, maybe like many beginning writers, I took this advice to mean that I could only write what I had truly experienced, in terms of time and place.
The key word here is “know”–so you should reflect on what you “know.” It’s not about setting necessarily. Confession: I am writing about a team of explorers trudging through snowy mountains. But I only had one real snow day as a kid and I’ve never been on a mountain. Snow and mountains remain unreal things to me, the stuff of fantasy or perhaps science fiction.
Go ahead and laugh. It’s okay. I am a native of the warm and humid coastal plain of southeastern North America. I saw mountains from an airplane once, and that was in California. I’ve climbed some hills so I draw on that a bit. But I can read, too, and have a nifty alpha reader with experience with that white, cold stuff that falls from the sky.
Other life experiences count, too. It helps to have loved and lost, to have won some and lost some. To know what it is to be loved unconditionally (ever have a dog or held a baby?) and to be rejected (high school was not fun for me, at all). Having some travel under your belt helps, as does working a variety of jobs, as both a supervisor and the one taking all the orders. The feeling that you have no idea what’s going on, maybe because you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak your language. Again, you can read about it, but some things you need to experience first hand to really “know.”
But that’s no limit to time or place, especially if you write in the genres I do. It takes imagination and research. If you’re really writing about something unfamiliar, part of that research could be doing that thing or at least observing. YouTube is good for observing, though you won’t get quite the same experience as being there–watching a blacksmith at work on video is fine, but what does the heat feel like? What do you smell? Your readers will want as many senses as possible in your writing.
So get out there and experience new things and keep writing.