Writer’s Conundrum: Experience vs. Imagination

The age-old maxims states:  “write what you know,” and, indeed, many of us do write from experience.  This is true even within the genre of speculative fiction.  In fact, it may be especially true in speculative fiction.  The more fantastical our worlds and characters, the more important it becomes to ground them in something that feels, if not real, at least possible.  We might be writing about lovelorn giant squid or misunderstood zombies, but we often base them and their worlds around people we know or places we’ve been.

So, it stands to reason that  in order to keep our imaginations fresh, engage our readers, and seek new fodder for characters and world-building, we must continue to have new experiences.

A small example that set me thinking about this:  a few weeks ago I participated in my first-ever poker game (I know, I know…I need to get out more).  During a hand where I’d folded and was waiting out the action, I started pondering how I might write a story about a game of poker without it actually being about people sitting around playing poker.  The next day I wrote a draft of a tale that follows a high stakes poker game unfolding across the entire landscape of a post-apocalyptic, magic-shrouded Manhattan.  The experience of playing poker for the first time inspired me to write something new.

But here’s the rub:  while some new adventures are free and can be worked around or into our busy schedules, most of them aren’t (even the game of poker cost me a buy-in).

Another example:  I’m currently working on a novel set in the high plateaus of central Mexico.  Though I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of Central America, I’ve never been to Mexico.  Sure, I’ve done research, found images and descriptions, listened to recorded sounds of native animals, and talked to my archaeologist friends who’ve done work in the region.  But that isn’t the same as experiencing the landscape firsthand.  I don’t know how those deserts smell, or what they look like at different times of day, or how sounds carry across the dry, open spaces.

Of course, this is where imagination in comes in.  And imagination can take you a long way, but still…those experiences are what help bring our writing to life.

So how do we prioritize?  Is it better to spend our time and money on sword-fighting lessons and books about military strategy to improve those battle scenes, or would a trip to the region where the novel is set pay bigger dividends?  Do you need to pay the money to shoot guns at a firing range in order to write a realistic gun fight?  Can another person’s words help you write a description of the Himalayas that exhilarates the reader even if you’ve never experienced that exhilaration yourself?

What’s the balance between creativity, imagination, and experience?  How important are new sights, sounds, tastes, and smells to nourishing our writing?  Or do you think it’s all bunk and a writer can get everything they need from research, interviews, and the rich soil of their own mind?

What do you think?  And what are your tricks for accruing experiences without emptying your bank account and getting fired from your job?