This blog hasn’t been so active lately as it was, since I’ve been hit by real life, an annoying distraction that frequently gets in the way of writers (and other creative people) doing what really matters. When we have to put that story that’s clamouring to be told onto the back-burner in favour of our job (and/or looking for one), the more onerous family affairs, or a hundred and one other guises in which this “real life” comes, we might be tempted to wish it would go away and stop bothering us.
Would that really be good for our creativity, though? The great fantasy writer Lord Dunsany once commented that imagination can’t create without experience, and that’s as true for the most otherworldly fantasy as for the grittiest social realism. If not more so.
On the face of it, real-life experiences aren’t likely to have much to offer a fantasy writer. There are exceptions, of course: any experience we might have of combat, riding, hunting or farming, for example, could be useful for elements of epic fantasy. Experience of ruling a kingdom, performing magic or fighting dragons is likely to be thinner on the ground.
Still, as those of us can testify who have to spend an inordinate amount of time on the aspect of real life known as job hunting, transferable skills are crucial. So is transferable experience when writing fantasy.
Suppose, for instance, your character is a general who has to explain to an unforgiving king why the war’s going badly. If you’ve actually had that experience, fair enough, but it’s unlikely. On the other hand, most of us have had the experience of being grilled by the boss on our performance at work, or perhaps had to explain to a teacher why our grades have slipped.
OK, the boss or teacher doesn’t actually have the power to have us summarily executed (hopefully) but turn up the fear and discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and it might help understand exactly what the general’s feeling before and during his royal audience.
Then again, how do we present the feelings of a country’s ruler who discovers that the person s/he’s madly in love with is working with the country’s enemies? Unfortunately, few of us are lucky enough to get through life without being betrayed or disappointed by someone we love. The basic emotion is much the same, whether or not affairs of state are bound up with it, and that experience can inform events that seem far beyond it.
So many impossible experiences can be covered this way. A novice learning to cast spells? Remember what it was like to take your first driving lessons? Riding on a dragon’s back? What’s the scariest, most exhilarating white-knuckle ride you’ve been on? Meeting an elf/dwarf/faerie/whatever for the first time? Haven’t you ever met someone you find a little exotic?
It's all valuable material for stories. So, next time real life comes knocking and disrupts your writing, you don’t have to hide – just trust it’ll all be useful one day.
Unless it comes in the form of the taxman, of course. Then you can run.