Write What You Know

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Unexpected Reaction to this Monologue
"You write what you know because — like there's another choice? The trick is to try and know as much as possible."

Ricky Gervais: "I was always told, doing English O levels, 'write about what you know', and it's so true. It's just so much easier t-"
Stephen Merchant: "Yeah, that's why you want our next project to be you as a man locked in a futuristic prison."
Ricky Gervais: "Well, yeah, I've been - it's called 'Brain Jail"

Many shows, books, movies and other media that depict a real world activity (police procedures, military procedures, wilderness survival - hell, even hobbies like playing video games) - often get it totally wrong, with plenty of glaring flaws that anyone who has engaged in that activity could quickly point out.

Some people avoid this problem by Doing The Research, and some even go so far as to Show Their Work, going out of their way to show off facts that they learned while researching the activity.

But some people don't need to Do The Research, because they already know. It's their life. The story they tell is their former profession. The world they build in the work of fiction is the world they actually grew up in.

This is because some writers write what they know. And if they know their subject well, this puts them in a unique position that gives them an advantage over people who would have to go out of their way to research the subject instead. A police officer who writes novels on the side can depict police procedure and what goes on in the department realistically. Someone who has to research it second-hand might be able to as well, but will still be missing the life experiences that the actual officer would have. Same with any other profession.

Because many writers are writers by profession, they know only about writing. Unless they're willing to research how other people live, this can result in Most Writers Are Writers.

See also Write Who You Know, for when writers grab from their circle of family and acquaintances to create their characters.

Note: This is NOT just about people who write about their current interest or hobby, but instead is about whether or not the interest or hobby is depicted very realistically because the author does it for a living or grows up around it, etc. If it is, then it's Write What You Know. If it isn't depicted realistically, then they're no different than any other author.

Comparing Shown Their Work and Write What You Know: Shown Their Work is for the times when the writer did the research on a subject and let the results appear in the work, while Write What You Know is for the times when the writer knew the subject from previous experience. As an example, somebody who researched a particular small town would know where the only diner is, while somebody who grew up in that town would know what to order because it's the cook's specialty.

Examples of Write What You Know include:


  • In the eighth volume of the Haruhi Suzumiya novel series, the author wrote about writing, at some point the titular character states that "anyone can write" and she does in fact recruit almost everyone she knows to write for her literature magazine, while each of the characters ends up writing about a subject they do actually know about, only the ones who have the reading habit write something at least interesting, everyone else just throw random words together (and the people who read the magazine realize this).

Real Life

  • Melville went on a couple whaling voyages (and wrote books about them - Typee and Omoo) before writing Moby Dick.
  • Beverly Cleary's job as a children's librarian undoubtedly gave her lots of insight into children's lives and thoughts.
  • Osamu Tezuka bore a degree in medicine, which becomes evident from time to time, mostly in his Sci Fi stuff, but most notably in Black Jack (when he's not disregarding it in favor of Rule of Cool that is).
  • Michael Crichton spent years in medical school and then wrote a bunch of books about doctors and medicine, and also created the TV show ER.
  • John Grisham, a lawyer, writes basically nothing but courtroom dramas.
  • The authors Andy McNab and Chris Ryan are both former members of the SAS, who served together on the same disastrous mission behind Iraqi lines during Operation Desert Storm that formed the basis for the memoirs that launched their careers.[1] McNab's protagonist in particular is an undisguised Author Avatar.
    • In a similar vein but much less famous, or controversial, RAF Tornado pilot John Nichol co-wrote two non-fiction books about his Gulf War experiences with navigator/WSO John Peters before embarking upon a solo career as a writer of thrillers whose protagonist is invariably a male RAF pilot... who always has it off with a beautiful woman before the end of the story, but he's good enough that nobody really minds.
  • Forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs writes the original novels, Bones (later used to create Bones). Two guesses what Temperance "Bones" Brennan does for a living.
  • Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade was written by Barthe Declements while she was an elementary school teacher, and a school psychologist. The result is one of the most realistic depictions of fifth grade (and under) kids both in AND out of school.
  • Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, the creator of the Chalet School series, was a teacher herself. She actually tried to start up her own school (in Hereford, which became one of the Chalet School's locations), although unlike its fictional equivalent, the school was unsuccessful in the end. Like Joey, the series' heroine, she also converted to Catholicism.
  • Charles Dickens knew a lot about debtors' prisons - his father had been in one.
  • It shouldn't come a surprise that J. R. R. Tolkien was an expert in linguistics.
    • The battles in his stories were based on his experiences in World War I.
  • Elizabeth Moon was in the Marine Corps in the late 60s, thus her books are chock full of fairly realistic Military and Warfare Tropes.
  • T. H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, had personal experience in falconry.
  • Ian Fleming and David John Moore Cornwall (writing as John Le Carre) both had backgrounds in intelligence.
  • This is probably the reason there are so many songs about being a musician.
  • Australian author Melina Marchetta is an English teacher, and sets most of her books in High School.
  • Similarly, Irini Saviddes teaches English and Drama, and her characters spend a great deal of time in drama class.
  • After being head writer for Saturday Night Live, a comedy sketch show, Tina Fey created 30 Rock, a show which centers around a comedy sketch show. Besides creating the show, Fey has written or co-written several episodes, and portrays the head writer of the show within the show.
  • Kevin Smith has stated this as the reason for him becoming a filmmaker. Specifically, Clerks is actually set and shot in the store than Smith worked in.
    • And Zack and Miri Make a Porno borrows heavily from his experience making Clerks; shooting in your workplace after hours, using a hockey stick as a boom mic pole etc.
  • Monty Python were veteran British comedy writers, and much of the humor satirizes the, well, tropes that British comedy writers (and British entertainment in general) were fond of that Python found suspect or trite. When they weren't Lampshade Hanging it, they were doing their best to twist them or avoid them altogether.
  • Martin Scorsese has a writing credit on only a handful of his films, but they happen to be the ones that deal most intimately with Italian American and Catholic culture in New York.
  • A good number of Stephen King's novels and short stories take place in Maine, feature main characters that are writers, or writers that live in Maine. Some of his works are also set in an industrial laundry ("The Mangler" and the novel Roadwork), a fabric mill ("Graveyard Shift"), or feature teachers as main characters (11/22/63, Salem's Lot); all are jobs that King held at some point.
    • And before him you have H.P. Lovecraft. His stories were generally set in New England where he lived and often featured secluded intellectuals as the main characters.
    • Also, King's novels frequently serve as metaphors for alcoholism and poor parenting, two issues he has struggled with his whole life.
  • John Ringo used to serve in the military. Most of his main characters either used to serve, or currently serve.
  • Ernest Hemingway kept this as his maxim. He explicitly said his body of work was "...one book about each thing that I know"
  • When Spider Robinson wrote his first story, The Guy with the Eyes, he didn't want to do any research or try to bluff his way through. So he went through all the things that he had sound personal experience of, and decided to use his knowledge of bars and drink. He imagined the bar that he'd most like to drink in, gave it a first person narrator based on himself, and set his tale involving an alien assassin there. Thus began the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald based many of his novels on his own life.
  • Bill Amend majored in physics and won a mathematics prize in college. Needless to say, most of the jokes involve advanced mathematics and physics formulae. One of the more recurring high school teachers is for Physics.
    • He is also a Mac user. The iFruit is a... something, of an iMac crossed with some Magical Computer elements. Earlier computers in the strip had, for what little we saw, a very Mac OS/Macintosh System Software like operating system.
  • A lot of Discworld's magic seems akin to theoretical physics. Pratchett also wrote extensively on the how prolonged exposure to magic can affect a place or person, the general lesson being that the price of magic is usually never as small as it seems. A lot of this made sense when you realize he used to work as a Press Officer to three nuclear power plants, around the time of the Three Mile Island incident.
  • This isn't really about plot, but deserves a mention. When Bethesda Studios took over the production of Fallout 3, they based it in Washington, DC. Their studios are based in a suburb of Washington, DC called Bethesda, Maryland (yes, we know, not a very creative name). This is why the landscape in Fallout 3 is so detailed: the developers know the area. Gamers who live in the DC metro area noticed and praised Bethesda for it.
    • Of course, the player can also explore a (fictionalized) version of the Bethesda Studios offices in the game.
  • Naoko Takeuchi used her experience in working as a Miko in a shrine as the basis for the character of Sailor Moon's Rei Hino, a Magical Girl who works as a miko and incorporates Shinto elements into her attacks.
  • Mark Twain worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi before he became a writer, and the Mississippi river appears as a set-piece in many of his works, most notably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Gilded Age, and Life on the Mississippi.
    • Don't forget that "mark twain" is an order that was often heard on riverboats, telling someone to record ("mark") the deepest part of the river ("the twain").
  • Television Producer David E. Kelley, creator of Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal (all Boston based lawyer shows) actually has a degree in law from Boston University.
  • As ludicrous as the events in most Only Fools and Horses episodes are, about 95% of them were based on stuff that had actually happened to the show's creator, John Sullivan, and/or members of his family. Reportedly, he didn't have to start thinking of any truly original storylines until near the end of the show's run.
    • There is said to be a similar tale about the writers of Are You Being Served?
    • Miranda Hart, the writer and star of Miranda, has said in an interview that the majority of the material comes from her own life, and that there are some incidents (including a very funny one about a train toilet) that she can't include in the show because the audience would think they are too far-fetched.
  • David Simon worked as a journalist in Baltimore, and spent a year embedded with the homicide squad as research for his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. This was adapted into Homicide: Life on the Street, which he also produced, and he later created The Wire, another police show set in Baltimore, which also includes a storyline about newspaper reporters.
    • This also applies to Ed Burns, the co-creator of The Wire. Much of the backdrop of season 4's criticisms towards the education system was based off Burns' experience as a retired-police-officer-turned-teacher.
  • The writer of the web comic Sandra and Woo is very interested in raccoons and wrote several Wikipedia articles about the species.
  • The writer of the superhero web comic Union of Heroes lives in the area where the stories of his comic take place and is a collector of superhero comic books.
  • The creepy apartment in Domu: A Child's Dream: A Child's Dream is based on the one Katsuhiro Otomo once lived in.
  • David Langford's novel The Leaky Establishment, a satire on obstructive bureaucracy at the fictional Nuclear Ultilisation Technology Centre, was based on his experiences at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.
  • Living With Insanity is about a writer trying to make a career out of doing comics.
  • After Forever's Concept Album Invisible Circles is based on the abused children that guitarist Sander Gommans met working as an art teacher.
  • Doc Nickel of The Whiteboard fixes paintball markers for a living, just like his Author Avatar but with fewer railguns and Funny Animals.
  • Max Sinister, author of the Chaos Timeline, did CS studies, which greatly helped for the Artificial Intelligence bit.
  • Peter Puck, author of the German comic Rudi, wrote an academic text about punks and got a degree for it. Punks often appear in his comics.
  • A teacher at this troper's high school wrote a play that was basically an autobiography in disguise. (It was a hit with the audience, even though many of the cast members predicted massive failure.)
  • Alastair Reynolds has a Ph.D in astronomy and worked as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency for 13 years. His expertise is very apparent in all of his novels and short stories.
  • Andrzej Pilipiuk, Polish fantasy author (known, among other things, for his Jakub Wedrowycz stories) graduated in archaeology, and some of his stories that involve archaeology show true expertise on the subject.
  • Katherine Paterson has said her childhood experiences are the reason children in her stories tend to have Abusive Parents.
  • Film director Andrea Arnold grew up in a council estate and as a result, often sets her works (Wasp, Red Road, Fish Tank) in council estates.
  • Robert A. Heinlein grew up in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1900s. In Time Enough for Love, he sends his arch-protagonist Lazarus Long on a Time Travel journey to visit his childhood family in... 1917 Kansas City, Missouri. The amount of loving autobiographical historical detail present in these chapters is so thick it practically oozes from the page. Much of his work shows similar details of his life experience, from his long ocean voyages influencing Podkayne of Mars and Friday to his military and military consulting experience influencing countless stories.
  • Dashiell Hammett, author of detective novels such as Red Harvest, The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon, was a member of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
  • More meta, but Tarn Adams, the sole programmer (!) of Dwarf Fortress, holds a Ph.D in Mathematics from Stanford. While that doesn't have much to do with dwarves, it certainly goes a long way into explaining the game's near-masochistic levels of complexity (from the point of view of someone else who would design a game). It also explains a lot about the detailed physics simulation in the game - DF mathematical models are good enough to look fairly realistic without being too clunky to actually work at decent speed.
  • Brent Butt grew up in small town Saskatchewan. The show Corner Gas which he created and stars in is set in the small town of Dog River. Its even more authentic since it was filmed in Rouleau, Saskatchewan and featured many locals as extras in it.
  • The Oatmeal web comic is focused on numerous subjects that have bugged artist/writer Matthew Inman over the course of his life, most famously a Take That rant towards his clientele when he worked as a web designer for 14 years.
  • Modelland, written by model Tyra Banks. Need more be said?
  • Sisterhood series by Fern Michaels: The series contains some instances of this. The ghost of Barbara appearing to Myra Rutledge is based off the author's claim that her house has a ghost in it. Fern Michaels is not the author's real name, it was taken from an imaginary friend she had as a child. The book Final Justice has a character named Marble Rose explain that she took that name from an imaginary friend she had as a child. The author is a Southern woman and she's not afraid to use that knowledge in this series!
  • Joe Haldeman has been a regular rider on Amtrak between Boston and Florida for about forty years; parts of several novels were written while en route on those trains. In The Hemmingway Hoax, part of the action takes place on... a train from Boston to Miami.
  • Sharon Lee has worked several positions in academia over the years, including administrative aide to a dean. This might help to explain why a number of Liaden Universe stories are set at colleges or schools of one kind or another, and why those settings all feel so authentic.
  • Ars Magica from Atlas Games has several supplements whose entire purpose is to Show Their Work, most notable for this being Art et Academe. Most of the authors have some qualification in Medieval History or a similar topic.
  • Dungeons & Dragons, interestingly enough. While it's traditionally infamous for many really bizarre things, starting with Gary Gygax's ideas of ballistics and weapon weight tables, many authors and designers had experience in fields that turned out to be relevant - and it shows.
    • Bruce R. Cordell earned a degree in Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology from the University of Colorado. Hence the greatness of The Illithiad and other books he wrote for Monstrous Arcana.
    • Ed Greenwood, the creator of the Forgotten Realms, is a librarian and used to fence. This shows. "Many of Ed's original players either worked in breweries or brewed their own" - which also shows: you're not going to run into "All Beer Is Ale" thing in Volo's Guides or other sourcebooks by Greenwood or anyone who consulted with main developers. His novels and sourcebooks mention breweries and specific beverages fairly often, some got whole lists of local beverages - not just names, but the specifics of how it tastes, what it was made of and (sometimes) who tend to drink this. There are references to (and in epigraphs quotations from) In-Universe books and ballads, usually involving at least a hint at their context, if it's not completely obvious from the text and title.
  • Gregory Benford is a physics professor who writes hard science fiction. The main character in his book Cosm is a physics professor. The book is about her physics research.
  • Herman Wouk was a Jewish naval officer who wrote about Judaism and war.
  • Frederick Forsyth was an RAF flying officer. The protagonist of his short story The Shepherd is an RAF flying officer.
  • Ben Stein improvised the "Smoot-Hawley Act" scene ("Anyone? Anyone?") in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and got the history and the economics right.