When we write a novel or even a short story, first we must recognize that we are creating a universe, a world, a reality, which in due course we fill with flora, fauna, and characters.
Authors would love nothing better than to make this parallel universe a credible one so as to give readers the excitement and the aesthetic pleasure they deserve for the price of the book. More than a contract, this relationship between author and reader is a covenant, which is another form of contract, but a contract based on faith.
Joseph Conrad —a Polish author who wrote in his second language, English, landmark novels such as Heart of Darkness and Nostromo— in his Preface to Within the Tides (1915), says:
The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible. To do that I had to create for them, to reproduce for them, to envelop them in their proper atmosphere of actuality. This was the hardest task of all and the most important, in view of that con¬scientious rendering of truth in thought and fact which has always been my aim.Since an author’s experience is limited, regardless of the author’s sophistication, education, and travelling, that vacuum has to be filled by the imagination. When I hear people say, or read in articles and journals: “Write about what you know,” I cringe. What we consider literature doesn’t emanate from experience but from the imagination. Cervantes never saw one single knight errant, yet he went on to create the most fantastic parallel universe, a universe in which he made “the unfamiliar things credible.”
Likewise, Shakespeare didn’t meet historical figures, and much less was he acquainted with princes, kings, and nobility. Yet, his pen wasn’t limited to just what he knew—his personal experience.
And what is one to say about entire genres such as science fiction and vampire lore? Do these authors write from experience and about what they know?
Not by experience alone does man live, but by the imagination also. Because master writers understand this point, they become masters of creation and in that effort they achieve verisimilitude—or, “rendering of truth in thought and fact,” as Joseph Conrad put it.