If you’ve written for any length or know writers, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “Write what you know.” Usually, people take this to mean that they need to write about the part of the world they grew up in, similar people to those in their lives, or about a job they’ve held before. These are all valid topics and have produced some fabulous fiction, but what do you do when you write in worlds that don’t exist or that you cannot get to either because of geography or because they occurred decades or centuries before?
This difficulty faces a huge percentage of authors when you add together science fiction, fantasy, some horror, large swaths of romance, and historical fiction. The good news is that these authors can still write what they know.
Human experience, which also influences the portrayal of alien life or fantastic creatures, carries with it common threads. We all experience many of the same emotions and events despite culture, time, and distance. Birth and death come to all of us. Pain, anger, joy, love, weariness, and the whole rest of the range of human emotions are universal. Everyone experiences language of some sort, even if only in gesture and expression. We all want to be understood, respected, and loved. A story that contains these elements can speak universally whether it takes place in modern day Madrid, ancient Rome, or on Mars.
Look to your own experiences. You may not have ever stepped foot in a space ship or experienced a sand storm, but you know fear and exhilaration. You may not have betrayed a king, but you know what it is like to betray someone and feel completely justified in doing it, especially if, at the time, you did not consider it betrayal. You may have never seen a monstrous creature lurk into the manor house you guard, but you can recall the fear as a child when you were certain that something was under your bed and, if you dare to extend even a toe off the edge, it would grab you and devour you.
Emotions and experiences are transferable and transformable in the world of fiction. No fiction conveys precisely an author’s real experiences. Otherwise, it would be called biography. Even in contemporary fiction, authors use their experiences as guides rather than to precisely reflect their lives.
Don’t get bogged down in the details of your experiences so that they hinder you. If grew up fishing in Alaska and wish to write about this, great, but don’t let your lack of immediate experience in a particular time, place, or with certain people stop you from writing about them. Look to what you know of human experience to make up for any gaps in research to give a story that real sense of verisimilitude.