I'm sure you've heard the advice - to write what you know. But is it good advice? At the meeting we had to plan our screenwriting workshop, one of my fellow WriteGirls staunchly insisted that it is not - she said you should write what you WANT to know. Hmm.
I think to take the "write what you know" mantra too literally would be quite limiting indeed. We would have no science fiction, no surrealism, no tales of the past or the future.
But I do think that writing what you know can be a good place to start. The whole reason I started writing a pilot about a college radio station is that for my last TV writing class in college I wrote a pilot about law interns - basically Grey's Anatomy, but law. And I still think it's a good idea...but I quickly realized that I'm not David E Kelley, and I know nothing about law. It became a tortuous semester of research and the discovery that law interns do not have the same juicy involvement in cases the way medical interns do. So my structure of serial personal relationship dramas set against episodic cases did not work. I ended up writing 60 pages of well-developed characters doing very little. Maybe one day when I'm an Important Executive Producer I will revisit the project and hire lawyer-turned-writers to figure out the legal stuff for me.
So for my next pilot I said screw research, I'm going to write something I know completely: college radio. And though I'm still struggling with rewriting, it's kind of nice to write something I feel that I'm an expert about. In a way my challenge is that I have so many ideas, so many directions to go in, so many real-life experiences that I can pull from. If you're a beginning writer who's tackling structure and characters and dialogue for the first time, it might not be a bad idea to give yourself a break and write about something you already know a lot about. Plus, your unique perspective about growing up in your parents' hip hop clothing store in West Philly (like my new friend Kat) might be the exact thing that gets people talking about your fresh, unique voice. And you can always write that super-ambitious historical science fiction allegory next time.
That being said, please fight the urge to write a coming-of-age story about an aspiring writer searching for love and the meaning of life. :)
As for writing what you know...I think my official advice is to write the people you know, but put them in whatever jobs, situations, settings, time periods, etc. that you want. I see everyone as a potential character. Start in reality and then let your creativity take hold.