Even seemingly an insignificant experience can play a part in your novel years later.
When I was a young engineer, a developer clearing a large tract of woodland discovered an old family cemetery. The town attorney advised that the grave stones could not be moved or the deceased re-interred elsewhere unless all next of kin could be tracked down and their permissions obtained. This caused quite a dilemma until one prospective homeowner offered to let the graveyard remain on his lot and subdivision lines were redrawn to accommodate the fellow’s house without disturbing the graveyard.
Many old farms contain family burial plots. But what if more than just bodies were buried among the graves? What if one of the plots was a different kind of final resting place—a grave without a body—a place that held secrets of a former life—a life that those who buried it didn’t want to interfere with their current life, yet couldn’t completely let go of because it was an important part of who they were? This supposition became an essential element in my novel, Torben’s Fountain.
The adage, write what you know, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep your stories within your expertise. I’ve never hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains like the airmen escaping the Nazis in my upcoming novel Night and Fog, but from miles of forced-marches in the army with blistered feet and burning lungs, trudging up little inclines that exhausted us as if they were foothills in the Alps, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine what endurance it must have taken the airmen to hike over the mountains from France into Spain in only one night.
As writers, we may not have been members of the underground helping downed airmen escape the Nazis, but we can draw on our experiences, the traumas, the patriotism, the compassion and so on as we bring those episodes that have been dryly recorded in military records and historic narratives to life.