While the answer is obvious for those who write memoir or family histories, the question becomes a great deal trickier when one is writing fiction. To a certain extent, all of what we put in a novel is derived from our own lives, even if the story we’re telling is set on another planet, in a different dimension, or smack in the middle of some utterly illogical fantasy land. None of that matters.
The admonition to “write what you know” seems silly to me; what else can we write? Our characters reflect the emotions we’ve felt in our own lives. Our likes and dislikes will be reflected in the words and actions of our cast. The players in our make-believe world are likely derived from folks we’ve met, or wished we hadn’t.
We can write about survival in the Arctic based solely on the weather we experienced while visiting relatives living in snow country. Our action sequence involving a great white shark will lean heavily on what we experienced while snorkeling in three feet of fresh water as a kid. Our cowboy hero will command his horse with consummate expertise because of a pony ride we took during summer camp. The killer in our action/adventure novel will drive a car, a truck, or a tank with incomparable skill simply because we’ve spent some time behind a steering wheel.
Can our characters pilot starships, do brain surgery, or manage a sword dance? Of course! And they’ll do so convincingly because of things we’ve seen and done in our own lives. That’s one of the wonderful differences between writing novels and writing textbooks. No one’s life (their real one, anyway) will depend on the expertise we bring to a tale we’ve completely made up. Our character can root around inside someone’s head and ferret out a bullet or a magic bean; that doesn’t mean we should be allowed anywhere near a real operating room.
We extrapolate. We imagine. And then we fill in the gaps. We can empathize with a fatally wounded legionnaire sprawled on the ground at the feet of a Celtic swordsman, his innards rapidly transitioning outdoors. We know what pain feels like; we understand shock; we’ve been light-headed on more than one occasion. We can make our reader live through scenes where our players experience far worse.
Sam Clemens never experienced time travel or lived in ancient England, yet his magnificent novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has enthralled millions. I seriously doubt J.K. Rowling encountered much actual magic before, during, or after she created Harry Potter and the horde of imaginary beasts, bad guys, and bravado which populate her books.
The mix of memory and imagination is a powerful one, but it’s one we can harness. Doing so takes time and effort, of course. But what worthwhile thing doesn’t require exactly that?
There are risks involved, too. What if we get the details completely wrong? What if we confuse the details of one era with a different one entirely? What if…
But those are questions for another day. And trust me; I’ll get to ’em sooner or later.