When people say “write what you know”, many writers raise objections. Wouldn’t that mean that every story would be about a writer? Sure, it makes your life easier to write about a job you know (and hopefully you’ve done something else besides writing in your life), but you can actually write about any profession (provided that you’re willing to do a lot of research) because that’s not actually what they mean…
The important thing is to write about emotions that you know, and know well. Most audience members won’t be experts about any particular job, but emotions are a issue on which everybody is a genuine expert.
Writing emotions that ring true but aren’t clichés is the hardest part of the writer’s job. It’s hard enough to write about the details of police work without treading on well-worn cop movie clichés, but when you’re building your character’s emotional life, you’re competing against every story ever told, all of which chart emotional journeys, making it that much harder to say something genuine that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.
There are two ways to solve that challenge. The first is to throw your characters into extreme emotional situations that are relatively unique onscreen, such as losing a child to a murder/suicide. The problem is that this probably hasn’t happened to you either, or anyone you know. This means that you’re just guessing as to what emotions this would dredge up. Worse, it means that, even if you do get it right, the audience won’t know it. They’re just guessing, too, since they’ve never been through it either, so they can’t identify anyway.
The harder but better way to write is to find emotions that are common in real life and yet have somehow, for some odd reason, have never been portrayed onscreen before. This is very hard, but it is the heart of writing. Give audiences what they crave when they go to the movies: They want to say, with a flood of relief and appreciation, “I didn’t know anyone else felt that way!”
This is one reason that smart showrunners would rather hire a stand-up comedian to write TV than a chump like me with a screenwriting MFA: Stand-ups specialize in finding these emotions. I remember falling in love with Ellen Degeneres early on when she did a routine about something everyone has been through: You leave the house, walk down the street, and then suddenly remember something you forgot. What do you do? You don’t just turn on your heel and go right back—first you snap your fingers in the air.Why? Because you’re afraid that one of your neighbors might be watching you and they’ll think you’re crazy unless you give the universal sign that you’ve just remembered something. An embarrassing little observation that is universally true: yet never expressed out loud before. That’s the heart of good writing.