"You write what you know because — like there's another choice? The trick is to try and know as much as possible."
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. For when the author writes about something because it speaks to them, regardless of how much they know about it, see Author Appeal
Real Life examples:
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Anime and Manga
- 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).
- Servant × Service is a Work Com surrounding a ward office. Its author Karino Takatsu worked in one before becoming a manga artist.
- Another In-Universe example happens in Sakura-sou no Pet na Kanojo. While Mashiro's art skills is impeccable, her storytelling is just awful. Her editor Ayano suggested that she write what happens around where she lives. Her manga Nanohana-sou was in fact a replica of what happens in the Sakura Hall; she just switched the position of Sorata (her Cloudcuckoolander's Minder) and herself.
- The creepy apartment in Domu: A Child's Dream is based on the one Katsuhiro Otomo once lived in.
- 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.
- Hayao Miyazaki grew in his family's aircraft factory (it was owned by his uncle and his father was its manager), so naturally a lot of his works feature either flying, lovingly depicted sophisticated tech or both.
- Miyahara Ruri used to work as freelance writer before she becoming manga artist and she used her experience as the basis for the main character of Misolala, Mugita Misono who works as a writer in a design company.
- FoxTrot's Bill Amend majored in physics and won a mathematics prize in college. Needless to say, some 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.
- 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.
- Scott Adams has often said that the cubicle experience and corporate behavior in Dilbert comes straight from his experiences working at PacBell.
- Some of the gags from Super Troopers are based off events that happened to Broken Lizard such as the college student eating pot and Farva dumping gasoline in the garbage can to get a free hot dog.
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Luc Besson was a former diver whose first wide release film was The Big Blue, which is about divers.
- The reason for most of the social commentary in District9. Director Neil Blomkamp wanted to place aliens in a realistic third-world environment. As it happens, Blomkamp is South African, so he knows the particular kind of Crapsack World that South Africa can be. Yes-most of the stuff in the movie, such as the slum, the cannibalism, the deportation, that's all inspired by actual events.
- Akira Kurosawa is a descendant of a samurai family with his mother's side and he was raised on stories of them including ones that weren't very flattering. This would lead to his creation of Seven Samurai
- Erich von Stroheim wrote, directed, and starred in Foolish Wives, about a trio of con artists pretending to be White Russian aristocrats. Von Stroheim presumably wasn't a criminal, but he was a fake aristocrat, the son of a Viennese haberdasher. When he emigrated to America he added the aristocratic "von" to his name and made himself out to be an Austrian count.
- Melville went on a couple whaling voyages (and wrote books about them - Typee and Omoo) before writing Moby-Dick, which was originally going to be a true account of his adventures, before he decided making it a narrative tragedy would be more interesting.
- Beverly Cleary's job as a children's librarian undoubtedly gave her lots of insight into children's lives and thoughts.
- 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.
- Robin Cook (not to be confused with the late British Cabinet minister of the same name) is a doctor who writes medical thrillers. Also, since he attended Columbia University and Harvard, it's not uncommon for his novels to be set in New York City or Boston.
- John Dalmas outfitted his character Curtis Macurdy with the same skills he had (minus the magical ones.) Dalmas worked in the forestry service for years, and trained with the 82nd airborne right before WWII ended. Curtis actually jumped during the war, and when he wasn't fighting, he was logging or using his combat experience and easygoing personality to be a sheriff in Oregon.
- John Grisham, a lawyer, writes almost nothing but courtroom dramas. (There are a few exceptions)
- A Painted House is an exception, but it fits here as well. The narrator is a young boy growing up on a cotton farm in the American South. Grisham is very familiar with this kind of life because his father was a cotton farmer in Mississippi.
- 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. Both books also turned out to be self-serving, heavily fictionalised and very unflattering about the other. 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 (namely getting shot down, captured, paraded on TV and tortured in a certain prison by the name of Abu Ghraib) 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). One guess what Temperance "Bones" Brennan does for a living.
- Nothing's Fair in Fifth Grade was writen 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's 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 One.
- 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 Once and Future King, had personal experience in falconry.
- Ian Fleming and David John Moore Cornwall (writing as John le Carré) both had backgrounds in intelligence; Fleming also worked in stockbroking and journalism.
- Fleming also ate and smoked a lot of what 007 does, which contributed to his early death.
- Australian author Melina Marchetta is an English teacher, and sets most of her books in High School.
- Irini Saviddes teaches English and Drama and her characters spend a great deal of time in drama class.
- 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 HP 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 Callahans Crosstime Saloon series.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald based many of his novels on his own life.
- A lot of Discworld's magic seems akin to theoretical physics. Pratchett also wrote extensively on 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.
- Mark Twain worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi before he became a writer, and the Mississippi river appears as a setpiece 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. In fact, "mark twain" is leadsman's call frequently heard on the river boats ("by the mark, twain" = exactly two fathoms of water).
- David Langford's novel The Leaky Establishment, a satire on obstructive bureaucracy at the fictional Nuclear Utilisation Technology Centre, was based on his experiences at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.
- Max Sinister, author of the Chaos Timeline, did CS studies, which greatly helped for the Artificial Intelligence bit.
- Alastair Reynolds has a PhD 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 Wędrowycz 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.
- Robert A. Heinlein grew up in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1900s. In Time Enough for Love, he sends his archprotagonist 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.
- Modelland written by 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 Hemingway Hoax, part of the action takes place on...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.
- Isaac Asimov was a respected chemist in addition to being a writer, and knowledgeable about many other fields. Those who pay attention to the scientific aspects of his books will find them to be surprisingly accurate. Unless Science has Marched On on some of his subjects, which is always a threat when one tries to write as scientifically accurate as possible.
- Andrew Vachss, child protection consultant and attorney whose defends children and adolescents exclusively, authored the Burke novels in part to vent his frustration at the flaws he saw in a system that allows children to be abused and abandoned while abusers are often unpunished. The theme of child abuse is prominent in most of his novels.
- This includes that one time he wrote a Batman novel and comic book, subtly titled The Ultimate Evil.
- Orson Scott Card, writing the Enderverse in particular...why are the Wiggins from Greensboro, NC of all places? And why are the Lusitanians Brazilian? And why does so much of the Shadow trilogy take place around Riberao Preto, Brazil? Card lives in Greensboro, and did his Mormon mission in Brazil.
- And a really glaring one, in Shadow of the Hegemon: Peter and his parents take Bean and Carlotta to Leblon, a real life Brazilian restaurant in Greensboro that Card often raves about in his review columns. Apparently he thinks it's so good that it'll survive about a century of the Formic wars and chaos and still exist in essentially the same form!
- Also a weird aside in Hidden Empire: While justified by the Twenty Minutes into the Future setting, there's really no reason for Cessy to have a prolonged discussion about the family's editions of the Ticket To Ride boardgame. But Card's a fan.
- Larry Correia is an accountant. He used to sell firearms. The protagonist of Monster Hunter International is an accountant and all of his books describe firearms the way that Tolkien described trees.
- Peter Beresford Ellis is a professional historian of Dark Ages Irish history; his Sister Fidelma series is set in seventh-century Ireland, and many stories focus on particular aspects of period law, religion and society.
- George MacDonald Fraser's McAuslan stories are a very lightly fictionalized retelling of his post-WWII service in the Gordon Highlanders.
- Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series up until his death, was once asked at a convention panel, along with several other writers, what influenced how they wrote combat scenes in their books. Because he had served in the Vietnam War, his response was that he knew what it was like to kill someone, and what it was like to kill a lot of people, and how that changed a person and how they viewed not just fighting, but themselves, afterward.
- L. M. Montgomery is famous for her vivid descriptions of Prince Edward Island in works like Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. Montgomery was born in PEI and spent a great deal of her life there. Also, Anne works as a schoolteacher in Anne of Avonlea; Montgomery was a teacher for several years.
- The Tolkien family are clearly believers in this adage. J.R.R. Tolkien was an expert on languages and northern mythology and so he wrote languages and mythos. His great grandson Simon is a barrister, and he writes crime novels.
- Brian Jacques who wrote the Redwall Series, as a youth he became a sailor and traveled the world going on all sorts of adventures, many of the character types, were based on people he knew. The Hares were based on RAF pilots. The moles were based on a pair of old men he asked for directions once, the searats were based on the sailors he knew, many characters such as Constance and Mariel were based on family members, even Gonff is an Author Avatar of when he was a kid. The reason the food in the books is so mouthwateringly descriptive is because he grew up during the war, in which food was rationed, he would read novels and be disappointed that when characters have meals, they were never described, he wanted to know what they tasted like, how it looked... etc.
- Dick Francis, after retiring from being a jockey, started writing thrillers set in the UK horse racing world. Over time the scope of his work widened to include related areas such as horse breeding and horse transportation and eventually completely unrelated areas such as glass blowing and art.
- Dorothy L Sayers worked for an advertising agency for several years, to the great benefit of Murder Must Advertise.
- The author of A Wolf In The Soul lives in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, so its geography is very accurately depicted. Even the jackals that can be heard from the forest at night actually exist.
- Tawni O Dell writes realistically of towns in and around Pennsylvania's coal mining industry.
- John Irving sets many of his scenes at Exeter (a boys' prep school in New England) and Vienna, and many of his characters are enthusiasts in squash and wrestling.
- After being an actor and head writer for Saturday Night Live, a comedy sketch show, Tina Fey created 30 Rock, an NBC Work Com which centers around an NBC comedy sketch show (TGS with Tracy Jordan). Furthermore, besides being creator, head writer, and showrunner of 30 Rock, Fey plays Liz Lemon, who is creator, head writer, and showrunner of TGS.
- This trope was actually invoked: Fey's original plan was to have her show center around a News Broadcast, but the higher-ups (specifically NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly) felt that "[she] was using the news setting as a fig leaf for her own experience and...encouraged her to write what she knew."
- Many of the scenarios from the Bill Engvall Show are based off actual events that he has recounted in his stand up act.
- 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.
- 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.
- Donald P. Bellisario served in the Marines and has created military-themed shows like JAG and NCIS. Even shows not about the military featured a main character with a military background, like in Magnum, P.I. and Quantum Leap.
- Jeremy Lloyd had a stint working in the menswear department at Simpson's of Piccadilly, a now-defunct London department store. The employees he encountered became the inspirations for Are You Being Served?
- This is probably the reason there are so many songs about being a musician.
- It might also explain why there are so many songs about highways, travel, and long distance relationships. Musicians with busy touring schedules are very familiar with these things.
- After Forever's Concept Album Invisible Circles is based on the abused children that guitarist Sander Gommans met working as an art teacher.
- Similarly, The Red Chord's album Clients was based around Guy Kozowyk's experiences with the various psych patients who regularly walked into the convenience store that he used to work at, as said store was located next to a psychiatric hospital.
- Blue collar workers are frequently featured in the music of Canadian folk singer David Francey. Francey spent much of his early life working in carpentry and construction.
- Dave Davidson was inspired by his time working in the morgue of a hospital (where his job mostly entailed moving bodies down to the basement) for the lyrics of "A Debt Owed to the Grave". At face value, it's about the deceased taking their journey with Charon, but it was just as much about his realization that his job description was essentially "ferryman of the dead".
- 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 used to be 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.
- Sort of meta, but the sole programmer (!) Tarn Adams of the game 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 of the games, due to the deep connections between mathematics and physics.
- The writer of the superhero webcomic Union of Heroes lives in the area where the stories of his comic take place and is a collector of superhero comic books.
- Living with Insanity is about a writer trying to make a career out of doing comics.
- Doc Nickel of The Whiteboard fixes paintball markers for a living, just like his Author Avatar but with fewer railguns and Funny Animals.
- The Oatmeal 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.
- Christina Strain, writer of The Fox Sister, grew up on the Yongsan military base in Seoul, on and around which the comic takes place.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal isn't just about what Zach Weinersmith knows, but since returning to university it's about everything he knows. The majority of strips are physics and math jokes, but jokes can be based on topics from any course he's taking. His classes must be full of fodder — since returning to school he hasn't made any jokes about meeting his deadline, or failing to, and often produces more than one a day — or one long equivalent to a week's worth of strips.
- 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.
- Additionally, the Pythons were Cambridge scholars, and so many of their gags are oozing with pretty high-brow jokes and Genius Bonus (such as the whole plot of Monty Python and the Holy Grail actually being a intricate satire of the actual tale).
- Rohan Kishibe of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure fame (Based off of author Hirohiko Araki) is a manga-ka that embraces this philosophy as part of his author abilities, believing that "researching reality" helps improve his stories greatly. Unfortunately he tends to take this to freakish extremes such as torturing and killing a spider to see how it reacts to pain, then licking it's corpse just to see how it tastes. His Stand, Heaven's Door, can read minds as well, so he uses it to get more inspiration for his manga as well. Whether or not the participant is willing.
- Hirohiko Araki himself also subscribes to this idea, hence why many parts of the manga feature in-depth explanations on various international cultures (Up to and including Part 3 including a guide on how to barter for cheaply priced kebab meals.)
- In the eighth 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 ones who read the magazine does realize this).
- In Cabin by the Lake, Stanley writes a horror movie script by covertly putting his own murderous depravities in the story. The murders he carries out are all 'research' for his story. Not a terribly smart move if he wanted to keep the fact that he's actually a serial killer a secret.