You know that hoary old bit of writing advice, write what you know? This is about the ship from which that spar is cut and so unusefully bashed about.
Here is a quote from an e-mail an acquaintance sent me from Antarctica, where she is working in a lab:
Jessica: I read your book, "The Z Radiant," on the plane. It was fantastic. ... I wanted to tell you that your description of Ingress is pretty much exactly what it's like when the first planes start flying into Antarctica after the winter, except it's only been 6 months instead of 26 years. Did you already know that? It's an event that people either look forward to or dread, and although there's no tracking the planes on screens unless you're at the ice runway, most people are outdoors or at windows watching for the plane lights (they start flying in before the sun's really up, so it's always dark). When the planes land there's a time delay before the effects are felt on base - the effects being new people and fresh food - but everyone on base is waiting for it. Exactly the same.
This, of course, made me super happy. Because it meant I did part of my job really well. Have I ever been to Antarctica for this event--or any event like it? No. And certainly I've never been to Ingress, the opening of the wormhole that lets the rest of the inhabited universe visit the planet Nentesh once a generation or so, because I made it up. What made it real?
Henry James talks about precisely that in this excerpt from his The Art of Fiction --
It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative--much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius--it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations. The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen. I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. She had got her impression, and she evolved her type. She knew what youth was, and what Protestantism; she also had the advantage of having seen what it was to be French; so that she converted these ideas into a concrete image and produced a reality. Above all, however, she was blessed with the faculty which when you give it an inch takes an ell, and which for the artist is a much greater source of strength than any accident of residence or of place in the social scale. The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it--this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, "Write from experience, and experience only," I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!"
Imagining into things, and bringing to that endeavor everything you know, have glimpsed, felt, sensed, that's one of the writer's main (and for me, most excellently fun) jobs.