That old adage to “write what you know” isn’t necessarily an edict to write only what you have experienced in your own life. Whole genres of literature, including fantasy and science fiction, as well as historical fiction and magical realism, would be wiped out if authenticity came only through those means. Such limitations would even rule out many books based in the contemporary world and reality as we know it.
There are many different ways to “know” something. You can know it through personal experience, yes, but also through close observation and empathetic imagination. Anthony Doerr’s novella “Memory Wall” depicts a world in which memories can be recovered and stored on memory tapes. This technology doesn’t exist in our world, but memory, memory loss and the very personal and human connection to it do. The writer can draw on this kind of knowledge and his own relationship to and observations about memory in order to empathetically—and authentically—imagine his way into the particulars of a circumstance and setting that is well outside his realm.
Though “Memory Wall” isn’t fully based on our reality, a strong understanding of the nature of memory—as it does exist in our reality—buffets the foundation of that story. In fact, writers who write beyond the realistic often value real science and technology, using advancements, facts or possibilities in these areas as a foundation for fiction.
Regardless of where your story is set—on an island inhabited by fictionalized creatures, an invented planet, or a futuristic rocket ship—you want your details to ring true. In this respect, writing what you know means you should also have an intimate understanding of the place, even if you’re the one inventing most of the details. Engage in thorough and thoughtful world building. Think of all the constants that exist in our own reality: a dropped key will fall down because of gravity, the sky is above us, water is a liquid that turns to ice when frozen. Then, there’s the reality of geographic location, cultural mores and norms, and era in time. It’s your job to know this fictionalized place as well as you know your own reality so that your characters can interact with it in a credible and meaningful way.
Consistency is of particular importance. If a dragon is introduced as a creature with the ability to read the minds of any other creature around him, the reader will be confused if, later, a dragon is easily slain by the hero who sneaks up on him to utilize the element of surprise. Of course, if your world grows into a series of books along the lines of the Harry Potter empire, you might find a continuity editor a welcome addition to your team to help ferret out just such errant details. Until then, it’s up to you.