Writing a Novel: Experience vs. Imagination04:26
Some of you might remember that I was casting about in search of ideas for my next novel. Eventually, I broke through by researching the germ of an idea, which inspired a legitimate plot, characters, and a range of settings. Afterwards, I realized all I needed was a bit more research and I could sit down and begin outlining and yes, ultimately get to the beautiful slog of a first draft just in time for the start of winter (my favorite season to write).
Because one of the major plot lines of my next manuscript will take place in a South American jungle (and I live in South America), I had to go there. I had to learn about the weather, the people, the plants and animals of the rainforest. I had to see and feel the place or I couldn’t write about it competently. This is how I make my ideas come to life—I base them on real experience. Since this is only my second novel—and my first set in a locale that is, or was, completely alien to me—I am nervous. I don’t know if I can pull it off.
Moreover, I’m a little worried that I need true experiences to build my fiction. I doubt that, for Cujo, Stephen King actually got trapped in a car while a rabid, blood-thirsty Saint Bernard attempted to devour him. Or that, like in The Firm, John Grisham worked for a law practice that represented the mob and killed its partners when they tried to quit. The same goes for countless science-fiction and fantasy novels, historical fiction (not based on fact), lots of YA—hell, maybe the majority of novels are written by folks vastly more creative than me.
I did, however, get rather lucky on my trip (and am lucky for being able to take it in the first place!). On the second day in the rainforest, I was on a hike with a group and we got surrounded by a troupe of wild pigs 100 strong that felt so threatened by us our guide was sure we were about to be attacked. I met indigenous Amazonian Indians and learned about the struggles they face in maintaining their identity in a modern world. I witnessed first-hand what the destruction of the rainforest looks liked—and also how vibrant and alive a fiercely protected piece of jungle is. I saw endangered—and truly dangerous—animals, insects and plants. I got consumed by mosquitoes and sand flies while melting in the humid midday heat. I took copious notes.
And I’m still not sure if I can re-create the world I experienced across the breadth of a novel. More disturbing, I’m concerned that I have to, that my imagination isn’t up to the task of gathering the slack where my research ends. I’ll find out soon enough I suppose, because I plan to begin as soon as I return to the States (yes, my glamorous life abroad is coming to a thudding end in only a few days).
This week’s question is: How do you go about making your fiction “real?” Are your stories purely invented, born strictly of experience or somewhere in between?
To learn more about him, visit johnmeils.com.