Finding the Strange Around You: Writing sci-fi and fantasy in the world outside your window

By Charles Payseur (above)

If there's one bit of writing advice that I've heard a lot, it's "write what you know." As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, people might think I just throw that tidbit out the airlock. But in some ways because I write science fiction and fantasy, my relationship with writing what I know is somewhat complicated, but no less real. The strange and luminous are not limited to far away planets or settings with dragons and wizards. There is magic all around us, and for those willing to look and imagine, there are stories there as well.

Now, this all is not to say that I don't like writing space operas and second world fantasies where the setting…doesn't really resemble Eau Claire, Wisconsin, or really any place I've lived. However, just because the stage is different doesn't mean that the experiences are galaxies apart. Feelings of isolation and longing that one experiences here, of being caught in between larger places as Eau Claire is caught between larger cities, are feelings that can easily be taken into almost any setting imaginable. Similarly, knowledge of rivers and farms and wineries and orchards is something that can inform almost any story, speculative or not. Some of my favorite stories take something achingly familiar and complicate it by setting it against a fantastical backdrop. Speculative fiction isn't so much an excuse to write the things that you don't know so much as an invitation to take what you know and take it out of its familiar context. Micro-breweries on Mars will feel more real if the writer knows a bit about micro-breweries first, and the Chippewa Valley offers a great many amazing places to gain some first-hand knowledge.

And that's not the only option. Bringing the strange and magical to Eau Claire or any other Wisconsin town can be fun and fascinating. Post-apocalyptic stories, for example, set here and written by people who know the area will feel more authentic than if a writer living in Wisconsin tried to imagine what the same post-apocalypse would look like in New York or California. Similarly, just because every superhero story seems to take place in a large city doesn't mean that a young person getting superpowers on a farm or in a smaller town in Wisconsin isn't interesting. Indeed, telling a more local story can be more personal and meaningful for writers surrounded by the world they're writing about because it gives them the chance to explore the issues and flavors that make their home unique, but in a way that is new and different, bold and speculative. Writers are tasked with combing through the possibilities of human experience and finding stories that will connect with and move their readers. This is no less true of speculative fiction writers--it's just that what is considered "possible" is greatly expanded. And with that added freedom, with all the nearly infinite options for setting and populating a story, sometimes it helps to start close to home.

And let's face it, the Chippewa Valley is a compelling setting, one with a diversity of peoples and perspectives and experiences and histories, all of which can lend to great sci-fi and fantasy. Want to tell a monster story about hodags rampaging through the downtown? Or about a troupe of local ghost hunters finding a bit more than they bargained for while checking out a haunted site in Chippewa Falls? Maybe Paul Bunyan is alive and well and actually a very good chainsaw artist? Or perhaps in an alternate history steamships fill the skies of the Wisconsin Territory in preparation for a very different War of 1812? 

The advice to "write what you know" is something I find very helpful, but only so far as it's not used as a chain, as a leash. Write what you know, yes, but also write what you don't know. Because in between the two is the gulf where art is made. Especially with science fiction and fantasy, there are countless worlds to explore, but that doesn't mean you should ignore the one just outside your window.