Question of the day: I wrote a NaNoWriMo novel whose plot basically consisted of Experiences That I Know Well Enough to Write About. After getting deep into serious revisions, along came Big, High-Concept Idea-- one that intrigues me more, but I feel I would be BSing my way through because it isn't in any way based on my personal experience (except as a closeted celebrity stalker). How crucial do you think it is to channel personal experiences into your novels? I'm torn because I think I write more convincingly about things I've experienced, but I'm probably screwing myself by FORCING marathoning, teaching, and cat ownership into plots just BECAUSE I've experienced them. I know you emphasize that your novels aren't based on your life, but at the same time you write about women who are in broad strokes similar to you-- I'm thinking of writing about characters caught up in an utterly different world.
This is a good question, and I've touched a little bit on it before. I think you absolutely DO NOT need to write about experiences that mimic your own life experiences. Right now, my current protagonist is very, very different than I am, and her world is set in one that I've never experienced: small town, claustrophobic, limited choices, very different marriage than my own, hobbies that I, personally, have never taken an interest in, a family dynamic totally unlike my own. But the beauty of writing something outside of your personal scope of knowledge is that these days, with the help of the internet, it's not that difficult to do enough research on whatever sort of life you put your characters into, that you can really have an understanding of their situations. (Which I'm doing in my current book with things like infertility and my heroine's love of photography.)
Another example of this is the fact that I had limited experience with cancer when I wrote The Department, and certainly, no first-hand knowledge. I tracked down oncologists, spoke to patients, etc, and found a way to incorporate this research into the book pretty fluidly WITHOUT it having anything to do with my real life. The same held for her job in politics. Ditto Jillian from Time of My Life working at an advertising firm. Again, no previous knowledge of it before I started writing, but I knew it was the best thing for the character. (Because, let's be honest, if I were writing from personal experience, all of my characters would be freelance writers who work from home!) And, um, obviously, I've never gone back in time. :)
I think, and I've said this before, the key to creating a realistic, albeit fiction, world is to have an EMOTIONAL connection with your characters and their struggles. Again, I have very little in common with Tilly, my current WIP protagonist, but I do understand her desire to control her life, control her future, and that's our shared connection. With Natalie from The Department, I understood her bull-headedness and her interest in exploring her past to improve her future. With Jillian, I connected with her "what ifs," even though I'm content with my own life. Right now, with Tilly, it's enough for me to delve inside her brain and her world, and hopefully, bring her to a multi-dimensional, full-fleshed out life. So, I say, go for it! Start anew on that BIG concept and see where it leads you.
Readers, how much in common do you have with your own characters?