As a resident of the far east coast, I’ve seen a lot of things that most people haven’t. The wild, grey Atlantic ocean. The Fundy Bay tides. Forests covering absolutely everything. The glory of that in the autumn.
Of course, there are a lot of things I haven’t seen. Like, for example, a mountain.
I spent my vacation this year on the southwest coast. We touched down in Ontario, California and walked out into the world and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The horizon was completely dominated by mountains! Scrub-lands! Palm trees! Wild cacti! Dry heat! I must have looked like a little kid stumbling through the area.
“Write what you know” is an incredibly overused and overrated statement. In the words of fellow fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal, “Write what you know is what’s saddled us with so many novels about English professors fantasizing about having affairs with their coeds.” I’ve never seen a unicorn, a body, or an elemental. I’ve never solved a murder, ridden in a carriage, or taken notes with only my mind. But I think I did a pretty good job writing all those things. “Write what you know” should really be something more like “have enough knowledge about what you’re writing that you can fake it, and throw in some personal experiences to add flavour.” If people just wrote what they knew, we wouldn’t have any speculative fiction at all.
But with that said, gosh there sure is some value in new experiences from a writing perspective. For instance, having spent a week driving up and down mountains, I’m embarrassed at how I’ve written them in the past. They’re just so big that I imagined their size was a gradual thing. They look that big from far away, but up close, they must look completely different. It must take forever to drive up a mountain. Never did I imagine that we actually could drive up and down one of those San Bernadino mountains in a half hour, the car at a 70 degree angle all the while!
Despite being on vacation, I learned a lot on my trip to bring into my work. Mainly, to never discount the value of real world experiences. I’ve thought about writing a Gold Rush fantasy at some point, and I’m definitely realizing that I might need to spend more time in the scrub-lands before I can really tap into all those things. “Write what you know” might be oversaid and overrated, but there’s value in new experiences.
(And yes, I had fun. I had so much fun you guys. The Colorado river, SoCal, and Las Vegas… what a crazy trip! Happy thirtieth birthday to me and all my best friends. We celebrated in style.)