Writing a Novel: Experience vs. Imagination


6a00e54ff9f2cf88340120a786bd73970b 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?


JMHammock1 John Meils is currently finishing a first novel, tentatively titled The Warring House. He has written for Elle, Men’s Health, and MyTango.com, among others.

To learn more about him, visit johnmeils.com.


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  1. I always find it to be a question of authenticity. It's so much easier to effectively recreate places, situations, conflicts, and characters when you've experienced their real-life counterparts. When you write what you know, your imagination frees up to fill in the details with humor and creativity and all other good things that keep readers engaged.
    Of course, you don't always want to write what you know. Sometimes you want to tackle a new country or conflict or whatever. So you've got to become an expert. I always marvel at novels that require tons of research but still read as compelling, imaginative fiction. Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett seem like good examples. Tons of historical information - but they fly by because the research is woven seamlessly into creative characters, plot twists, and so on. I guess my point is that if you've got to do research, go big and dig as deep as you can so that your writing will feel authentic. If not, you'll put too much pressure on your imagination.
    Good luck with the new book! Glad you survived the wild pigs ...

  2. I’ve never caught the whole house on fire, but I’ve had my share of mishaps with the Jiffy Pop on the stove top. So, for me, I draw from closely related human experiences (emotional, physical, or mental) and build the fiction around them. I’ve never been a man - yet my second book is first person, and the main character is male.
    One of the most extensively researched series of books I’ve ever read were by Jean M. Auel, the 'Earth’s Children' series. I can’t imagine the lengths she must have gone to in order to create the pre-historic world that she did for her characters. For me to dedicate to something such as that, I’d have to have a passionate interest in it first. Of course, the financial resources to make the trips would be nice too.
    So, to answer the question, I make my fiction 'real' by adding the element of real human experience. The events and places may be purely fictitious - but the people are always real.

  3. I like to dwell in the land of Fantasy. So for me to make my fiction "real" is a bit of a challenge. I create new species and places. My current work is set in a possible future of our world. A future where technology is dead, magic is real and the Statue of Liberty stands in the middle of dry land, holding the living key to our future in her arms.
    For me, I put in a few details and draw from my sensory perception of the world that is real. Here is an example:
    The tip of his staff erupted into liquidy light. It was like burning wax perpetually dripping back into itself. The glob of light was in constant motion but never leaving the tip of his staff.
    The description above uses a made up word and talks about magic light. Certainly not anything that could be "real". I hope the description is vivid enough and familiar enough that you can see it.
    I think keeping it "real" is better achieved by pulling people into the place you are by giving them just enough info so they can create the world you describe within the boundaries of what they already know.
    I can have a light on in an unfamiliar room and get all the detail I could ever hope for. But I can get a pretty good impression of the room if it is dark and somebody shines a flashlight around the place for me. The room is far more interesting this way too!
    Follow me on Twitter! http://twitter.com/jaytaylor510

  4. Writing what you know is always good advice. However, writing what you know can take many forms. I too am a fantasy, science fiction, and romance author. Since fantasy and in many cases science fiction, are about places that do not exist and so cannot be visited, imagination must take up the slack. However, to make the worlds believable, we must draw upon our experiences of our own world, as well as the interactions between ourselves and our world.
    For instance, if aliens existed, scientists have speculated that their understanding and experiences could be so completely foreign to our own, that it may be hopeless for us to ever find common ground. As such, I as a writer, could never dream up something so completely different. It goes back to the idea of imagining a negative action. If you close your eyes and imagine "not moving" it cannot be done. No matter how hard you try, you cannot see yourself "not moving". However, if you imagine a statue, suddenly it is perfectly obvious. But then, we have seen a statue. Now, consider how you would describe the color blue to a blind man who has never seen color. No common ground...
    For me, weaving what I know, which includes emotional experience as well as physical into the worlds I imagine, makes writing the stories fun. But no matter how fantastic the world, the "common ground" for my readers is the description of mundane things utilized in the description of the fantastic. The readers take those descriptions and craft the world I imagine. Keep in mind, no reader will ever see the characters or the worlds described as the author sees them. That includes descriptions of earthly things. Every reader's experience is as unique as the author's, and no one sees the world in the same way.
    Finally, in the case of fantasy and science fiction, writing what you know may be as simple as reading books in those genres. By learning how plots and worlds and characters are expected to behave in those genres, the writer can find "common ground" with the reader. And then the imagination takes wing and soars...
    Good luck to you on your endeavor.
    GA Lanham
    author An Unlikely Place

  5. This argument--whether it is okay to write about things you don't personally know--always baffles me. Why do so many people love stories about aliens and vampires and wizards and crazy, outlandish things that NO ONE has actually had experience in, if the case is that you should only write what you know? My mom always tells me this when she sees my unfinished work. For instance, I'm a girl, but I usually write from a guy's perspective. She fusses at me over it: how am I to know the thoughts of a man? I once wrote a small piece to cope with writer's block about a gay guy--boy did I get hell for THAT! She had the nerve to ask me if I was gay when she found out! If we could only write what we knew, we would not only insult every single person we knew, but our books would SUCK. There would be no Sci-fi, no Historical Fic, no Horror or Thriller or Mysteries EXCEPT non-fiction! That's what fiction is ABOUT: things from your own imagination. Sure, research and using elements of your own life is good and useful and can be fiction, but a whole story based completely on your life is Not. Fiction.

  6. I'm more of a fantasy writer, and most of the places that my stories are set in aren't real places at all. I don't usually have to worry about being real because everything is literally from my imagination.
    However, when I right about "real" things in real places, then I tend to stick with what I know, thought not always. Most of my characters live in small cities because I've always lived in a small city, and I don't really know what it's like to live in a big city or a small town. I have written about people in New York a few times, and I felt a little overwhelmed until I did just enough research to help me get the experience right. It always helps to know people who have traveled to whichever place you have chosen because if you have any questions, then you can ask them!

  7. I'm a new writer and just finished my memoir. I'm considering self publishing. My story takes the reader through my experiences of late stage alcoholism, being arrested, twice, by my new husband of three months, and my subsequent adventures through, and between, five inpatient treatment centers for alcohol abuse.
    I write the same way I speak and in my upcoming books, which will all be fiction, my intentions are to mix my experiences with 'what if's', questions, dreams I've had and fantasies. I've been journaling since I was four.
    Anything can be turned into a story because it already is one. Outlines are the best.

  8. Roderick D Turner11 November 2010 at 09:04

    I write fiction, mostly short stories, and yes the germ of my story ideas does usually come from some sort of experience, but from there I let my imagination run. Example: I drove past a bus stop one day and saw a young woman with silver (I mean the silver you see in Christmas tree tinsel) hair - not a wig, really silver. I had to write about her. And my method is: start with the image from whatever has sparked my imagination, set up a situation in the first line or two - and let the characters take it from there. I have a whole shelf of jotted ideas I've thought of at one time or another that at the time seemed like the best idea for a new story when I had time to write it. But I find if I try to write with a full story line worked out ahead of time, the story comes out forced, squeezed into a shape it would have been better not to have. So, instead I prefer to go in with no idea where the story is going, and enjoy the writing as much as (if not more) than the reader as I let the characters tell me what to write. It's exciting. And it's what inspires me to keep writing - not knowing what will happen next. Some of my stories are posted at Aphelion (most recent is http://www.aphelion-webzine.com/shorts/2010/07/Awakening.html)

  9. James Michener is probably the king of research. He kept a staff of researchers busy for many years researching his novels. Some of his novels are as accurate representations of the times he writes about as the scholarly historical texts on the same subjects.
    Theoretically, if we said we wrote about people we knew, they could sue us so we cloak them in forms that we hope will make them less recognizable. Having said that, most of my characters are based on people I knew or have read about.
    My first novel, "Stagehands Walk", which will never be published, is placed in the industry where I have worked for my entire career and its two protagonists are based on colleagues who have since passed away.
    My second novel, "Solomon Family Warriors", actually a series, is science fiction and is based on large part on the science fiction novels I have read and enjoyed populated with characters from the books and from my life.
    My first two published works, "Flying with Fairies I and II" are allegorical fantasies whose simplistic characters could have come from any of a dozen current television shows.
    My third published work, "Doogie Stone" is an alternate history with a little magic thrown in. It takes its historical aspects from a combination of pre-colonial America and medieval Europe. Here again, the characters are drawn from people I know.
    My fourth published work, "A Father's Ghost" is a thriller placed in the Boston of my youth with a dose of current technology. The characters are assembled from people I know.
    My fifth published work, "Seeds of Anger" is placed in Florida where I have lived for the last thirty years. The places and issues are real. The people are not. It is a coming of age story with recognizable characters. The photographs which illuminate the text were all taken in Central Florida and are not manipulated.
    My next work in the pipeline to be published, "Heron Baby Island" is the first in a series. It is set in Central Florida and features several family groups. It will also be illuminated with photographs.
    The one after that is "Swamp Witch" which was inspired by a painting I saw at an art gallery and takes place in Central Florida.
    The novel I am currently working on returns to my roots in community theater and conventions. It is a "play within a play" format and is full of arcane bits that only someone who has spent a career in the business would know. It is populated with people we all recognize.
    So in an answer to your question, I research what I need to make sure the facts do not get in the way, but I write from familiarity.

  10. Cathy Anne Donohoe14 November 2010 at 06:32

    I have heard it said it is best to write about what you know. I agree but only up to a point. For me it is a combination of imagination and experience. I prefer the imagination presented with a blank page and the revelation that might then be presented.

  11. Writing what I know works best for me, sometimes I will research but only a little! If I go all out with researching then I lose the entire idea of the story I wanted to write.

  12. I try to research facts and names. I don't want a French character with a totally French background to have an Italian name.
    The farthest I've ever went for making the fiction as real as possible was going on google maps and looking through New York City (the setting of one of my novels.) If there was a Starbucks along the path my character was walking, I would let her go in and look for jobs.
    Besides that, my fiction is completly made up :)


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