Back when I was an aspiring botany major, a heavyweight English student I knew showed up at my flat with a fifth of Jack Daniels to live the life of a writer, as he put it. He mentioned Faulkner. He made Hemingway watching a bullfight in Spain or sitting outdoors in a cafe along the Seine River, sipping wine with a crowd of angry young writers sound like a good thing. I don’t know what became of him. I turned out to be a writer. Maybe he’s counting tree rings.
If he understood what he was telling me, he did have a point. You do need to be familiar enough with what you are discussing in order to do a good job of writing about it. One would think that your words will be best chosen when you are discussing elephants if you have ridden one. And it is much easier to make walking across freshly ploughed ground in your bare feet amongst the scattered blackbirds come to life for your readers if you’ve actually done it.
So how do you do such a thing if you are writing fantasy? How do you make unicorns, Elves and dragons come to life? Well, unicorns are very much like horses, except for the narwhal-like horn, so we can talk about them in terms of the horses which we’ve ridden. We can talk about their horn waving about above their feed boxes as they nibble up the last of their oats. We can talk about the Elf with his insides shaken to a jelly of soreness, from an afternoon’s frantic ride. And we can talk about a mob of dragons settling onto a sandbar in the dusk, as each one pauses to sort through the feathers of his wings before giving himself a thorough shake, if we have walked along a river’s sands at sunset and have indeed spent an afternoon in the desert mountains, watching a flock of buzzards come circling in to land on their customary rocks.
Just how would you make an imaginary creature come to life for the readers you are trying to engage and entertain? Wouldn’t you need to draw upon similar things which you’ve actually seen? What do you think? We’d like to know.