Last weekend, my boyfriend and I finished watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. The show comes from the mind of Tina Fey, and it reminded me a lot of her previous show, 30 Rock. Both shows share the same sense of humor, and take place in New York City, where Fey spent a significant chunk of her career writing for Saturday Night Live. While UKS takes its storylines and cues from the “fish-out-of-water” line of storytelling, 30 Rock is undeniably right from Fey’s personal experience with SNL.
Tina Fey’s new show is a prime example of a show-runner/writer writing what she knows.
“Write what you know” is a pretty common piece of advice in the writing community, but it’s the easiest way to ensure that your work retains credibility and maintains quality.
Writing what you know applies not only to your character choices, but to your setting choices as well.
If you, like Stephen King, spent a good portion of your life in Maine, then set your stories in those parts of Maine.
If you share a background in education with L.M. Montgomery or have experience in piloting riverboats down the Mississippi River like Mark Twain, then write characters like Anne Shirley, the governess, or settings like the bank towns of the Mississippi River.
One of the reasons that John Grisham’s legal thrillers hold up well is that the man is a former attorney.
Well, What About FICTION?
In many cases, fiction comes from a world that doesn’t exist, or a world that the author may not be familiar with.
Stephenie Meyer may very well be familiar with the Pacific Northwest, but it’s highly doubtful that she’s had extensive experience with vampires face-to-face, and it’s unlikely that J.K. Rowling has had any firsthand experience with wizards.
It may also be the case that a writer doesn’t have the same experience as their protagonist; for example, the hard-boiled detective thriller set in the 1930s may be written by an accountant in the 2010s.
How to Write What You Know if You Don’t Know Anything
Most good writers are aware of any shortcomings that may occur due to their lack of firsthand experience, so they’ll research extensively before writing.
Without that research, it’s going to be fairly obvious to an attorney who is reading the work that the prosecutor protagonist has no business telling the judge that he’s out of order, and that the writer has no idea what they’re actually talking about.
But research takes time, and not all writers have the luxury of spending that time researching. The best way to avoid running into this dilemma? Write what you know.
If you’re stuck in a creative rut, consider a brief exercise in writing what you know. It requires less mental investment and time than researching for a police drama or a historical fiction piece set in post-WWII Germany. Although if you personally lived in Germany after the end of WWII, by all means—write about it.
How about you? Do you write what you know? Let us know in the comments section.
Take fifteen minutes and put “write what you know” in action. The only prompt you’re getting this week is that spring must be involved. Pull from your personal experiences and flesh out that spring. Post your completed practice in the comments and check out the work of your fellow writers when you’re done.