I often hear ‘write what you know’ being espoused to new fiction writers as a golden rule, and for awhile as a new writer I heeded it. Two minutes later, I realised how very poor literature would be if all writers did indeed follow that ‘golden rule’ to the letter, and so promptly abandoned it. This is not to say that nothing can be learned by writing what you know, and indeed if you are new to writing it might be a good place to start. However it is just that, a place to start, a comfort zone, which you may move away from as you gain more confidence and begin to stretch your imagination. Still at the end of the day you can only draw upon what you know, have experienced, and researched, but this forms the springboard from which you can leap.
Take Orwell as an example. Now if he only wrote what he knew, ‘Animal Farm’ would have been a radically different book. Last time I checked no one knows about or has met any talking farm animals plotting to takeover the farms they are on. Thus Orwell took his concerns about Stalin, and used the ancient art of allegory to create a fictional dystopian world. One that paralleled what Stalin was up too in Russia and where it might lead. In so doing he was able to voice his concerns in a manner that was widely accessible. If Orwell had only written what he knew he would have probably ended up with an inaccessible political tome read by very few.
Indeed I’d go as far to say, that as a fiction writer your duty is too move out of your comfort zone and pursue what makes you very uncomfortable, and yet, still fascinates you.