Stretching Reality

Yeah, I write SF/F but that’s not quite what I mean.

Writers get information from a wide variety of sources, the best one of which is their own life and experiences. And from what you’ve done . . . you extrapolate that out and into the fictional world you are creating.

It starts early, as early as your childhood experiences and memories. Family, friends, school, the Bad Kids, Car trips with the parents.

Pets, the dogs and cats you grew up with. Horses you’ve ridden and owned. Horse shows, your favorite trails. Yeah, I use horses a lot, you’ve probably noticed.

The first time you rode in an airplane. Moved to a new neighborhood. A new school. High school (shudder). College. The first job.

I’ve worked for two oil companies, for a total of about ten years. Seeing how a corporation works. As one minor cog, I could watch from the bottom up and see how the whole thing worked, from basic information gathering and analysis, selling it to your boss, and then the next level . . . and the forms, the money trails, getting an “authority for expenditures,” business expense reimbursements, the mix of science, showmanship, and salesmanship it took to get your projects funded.

And interacting with the government. Ooo! The Federal Offshore Lease Sales! Seeing that up close and personal came in really handy when I had a Cross-dimensional Exploration Company bidding on rights to a newly discovered world.

Dating. Especially the disasters. Being a bridesmaid in a couple of weddings, and then getting married yourself. Learning to live with a whole new person, and slowly meshing both your subconscious expectations of married life.

Having children. Boy, is there ever some perspective for you! If anyone had actually convinced me how utterly exhausting, how utterly life consuming . . . fortunately they didn’t.

I think one of the few young-person experiences I sort of wish I’d somehow shoehorned into my life is the military. But I like the way my life has gone, so it’s not a big regret, just a huge hole in my knowledge base.

Overseas travel. School, business, and pleasure. Well, as a tourist you don’t really grasp the culture, but you can see the places, get a feel for that spot, right there! And have a memory to pull out and use that spot for an important scene. Make your readers feel like they’re right there among the rocks, and dry hills, or edging carefully up the cliff . . .

And . . . there are the bad memories as well. When you can remember that horrible moment . . . writers use those as well. And extrapolate to worse. Or better. And sometimes we can break our hearts all over, because the Hero can’t save that particular day.

Not having enough of a particular bad type of experience can result in pretty poor writing. One of my early works, which got firmly declined, was also one of my critical learning experiences, because the editor explained.

Umm, on a re-read, yeah, there was an awful lot of inappropriate smiling and laughing (back when I believed in avoiding the use of “said” and hadn’t a clue how to properly avoid it. I think. Maybe I really was massively insensitive.) It’s much better now, but it still won’t ever be mistaken for actual horror.

So, what life experiences stand out as really useful to you in writing?



And for a real stretch . . . free for a few more days:


  1. The miseries of high school (and junior high) and the few adults who waded into the fight with me. Riding horses and flying airplanes. Seeing battlefields and walking them, really learning how important terrain and weather were in the pre-modern era (no air-support ever). The difficulties of getting dropped into a different culture with only the basics of the language, and that about 200 years out of date.

    1. Heh, for me, getting into West Berlin was a bit like a jump into a completely different world, now that I think about it. It was so different. Yet, back then I sometimes preferred how quiet it was in the East side of Berlin; while I liked the food and availability of books and video in the West.

      But that’s because I was a child, with childish concerns.

  2. “So, what life experiences stand out as really useful to you in writing?”

    Understanding physical limitations. You can’t fight when you’re sick, you can’t run fast when you’re tired, hand-eye coordination disappears under stress, and you can’t do squat when you first wake up.

    So many books have these world-beater main characters who can fight in a space suit all day long, and then make dinner for twelve as soon as the suit’s off. Or the famous horse that can gallop twenty miles and then run right into the battle without taking a week off to recover.

    1. Depends. I’m one of those oddballs who (when I’m well, anyway) goes directly from asleep to wide awake and completely functional. Might go with being a very light sleeper, to the point that I’m seldom entirely unaware of my surroundings.

      Funny story on that…. was taking a long nap. Dreamed that a spider was building a web attached to my nose. Woke up to discover some stupid spider had anchored a guy line between the ceiling and my nose, and was starting on the rest of the web…wtf??

      Also scared the living crap out of the dorm proctor at college (back when they did bed checks!) … my bed was next to the door, and I’m asleep. Proctor opens door, and I’m instantly upright on the bed and ready to fight. Hapless proctor about had heart failure, and never checked our room again. 😛

  3. “So, what life experiences stand out as really useful to you in writing?”

    Like you, I have formal and informal horse experience, and it’s been really helpful when writing fantasy and historical fiction, both in terms of realism and making my characters come alive.

    A chronic illness helped me understand my physical limitations, and the astonishing things I could do even when I was in really bad shape (I played polo right through my illness, even when I could hardly walk up a flight of stairs). It also gave me a vivid image of the contrast between depression and normalcy (everything looked very gray and washed out before I started treatment; afterward, the colors became incredibly bright- I still have a memory of the sun on the grass, so unexpectedly bright and such a deep green that it hurt my eyes).

    My other helpful experience was The Great Move last spring- it really made me think about the logistics involved in moving just one person, and appreciate how complicated it must be for an entire army or tribe. Just feeding people on the road takes some work, never mind all the other stuff.

  4. About working for an oil company… My aunt was a secretary for Standard Oil in Chicago in the early ’60s. The striking detail she mentioned once that sticks in my memory was that there were spittoons in the conference rooms. The reason was that a lot of the executives had come up through the ranks from the oil fields. Open smoking was banned, so a lot of the men took up chewing tobacco instead and kept it up even after they went into upper management.

  5. Working for an airplane building company, working as a secretary, growing up in a place where others come for vacation, being a faculty member….bits and pieces of a lot of things. My wildly varied work experience comes in handy. It gave me a multitude of perspectives which I value greatly, not only for writing, but in real life as well.

  6. Being in the military – and living overseas for a good few years of that, including a year in the Arctic.
    Being a parent.
    Being tasked to write anything and everything as part of my job description: everything from a thirty-second radio spot, to letters of instruction, and to an Airman Performance Report. That last provided me with a handy short-cut for creating a character. When writing a such a rating, I’d start off by thinking, “What is the one thing that comes to mind when I think about this person?” That one quality of theirs was the hook to hang the rest of their performance rating on. The same with characters: what’s the one thing that makes this character distinctive? The rest of it flows from that.

  7. Sorry, no sales; I have them all. I did update Explorers to get the nice new cover.

    1. I’m slowly updating the covers for the whole series. By the time I finish, the approved style will probably have changed, and I’ll have to start all over again. 😀

  8. Not mine, but my cousin told me how it felt going to meet the fellow she would marry in a country where she didn’t speak the language, being led around and bought treats but not really having any adult volition. I used that in a description of pretty much the same thing but In Space. 😉

    1. Yeah, talking to people and getting the feel for things second hand is a good way to get your head inside a Character you might not otherwise even think of creating.

  9. Basic camping knowledge. Even if it did distract me throughout a story that one character, during a snowstorm in the wilderness, was dutifully heaping blankets ON TOP of another, injured one.

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