When I first heard that advice, I took it to heart. I wanted to write sword and sorcery fantasy novels, so it turned out to be a painful process, for both me and the household furniture (I’m all for practical experiences). And I never even mastered the cool sword twirling technique they pull off so easily in Conan. Nor did I ever repay my mom for that broken chandelier, now that I think about it.
And I write fantasy fiction. Imagine the poor science-fiction writer undertaking zero-G flight training and the horror writer hiring an axe-wielding maniac to chase him around for a while. I have it easy, really.
Yet, somewhere between the flint napping and before the bungee jump, I began to have a realization. It dawned on me that writing what you know is wise advice, but perhaps I don’t actually need to experience it all and can, after all, safely stop looking for that trebuchet-building course (seriously though, where can I get one of those?)
The “what you know” that’s most important is the stuff that we’ve observed since our time as frolicking children – ourselves and the people that surround us. I know enough of people and have observed enough human emotions at work, mine included, to at least build realistic characters, which are the basis for a good fantasy novel.
Lands can be created, ruled, destroyed and rebuilt, but it’s the people that populate it that will make it real. Readers, especially readers of SF/F/H novels, are willing to suspend disbelief as long as they like the characters and believe in them, wanting to see whether they’ll succeed or fail miserably. If that happens to be on a gas-powered world populated by wheat-generating explosive june bugs (ew), so be it.
What will make your story work in these genres is bringing your own unique worldview to the pages. Not a romantic? No need for that luscious sex scene. Against A-Type personalities? Go for mellow. Don’t believe in basic mood changers like caffeine and chocolate? Wait, that’s just crazy-talk. But you get the gist. You put in what you see and know as a person, do the research to convince equestrian experts that you do in fact know the basics of tacking a horse, and let your characters show their three-dimensional selves through their heartaches, triumphs, stupidity and hopes.
Of course, if you like personal experiences, then practical research can be fun. I love new experiences, so would someone please send me information on trebuchet-building courses? That’d be pretty sweet.