Whether you realize it or not, your characters come out of your imagination gently supplemented from experiences with real people.
The fires in California are terrible, but they remind me of the time when I saved two states through my fire-fighting skills. It was a few years ago in Morganton, North Carolina when a raging forest fire was threatening civilization, a few moonshine operations, and marijuana fields back up in the hollers.
The state was begging for volunteers, so I set aside my duties as an English instructor at Western Piedmont Community College, and joined the fray under the direction of professional fire fighters. I worked from dawn to dusk and discovered what hard physical labor was like. When we paused briefly for lunch, lounging on the mountain top, Hardee's brought us free food, which we inhaled. Then we went back to work.
The men I helped were enormous employees of a tree company, and most of them were built like trees: Men with no necks and a coarse sense of humor, joking about the time they drove off the mountain in the bulldozer, or stepped up to their neck in a hole in the ground that held a still-burning tree stump.
When I got home that night, I told my LSW that I was going straight to bed. She suggested I look in the mirror first, and there I saw a guy whose appearance was totally covered with black ash. My eyes and teeth were visible, and that was it. I took a shower.
I did recover, eventually, and was pleased to learn my actions saved the states of North Carolina and Virginia from being burned into oblivion. So, if you're from either of those states, let me just say, "You're welcome!" I am now waiting for a call to save California.
The last time I wrote that having a variety of job experiences is a good thing for writers, just for their overall education and background to draw from. I realize it also made it look like I couldn't keep a job, but there's nothing I can do about that. You may reach any conclusion you want.
Today I'm addressing another topic, and that is the benefit of travel as a source of education and material. I tend to believe this one, although I know it's possible to travel in one's imagination and still come out sounding knowledgeable. I'm confident Arthur C. Clarke did a fine job with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I have traveled a lot, including 47 states and the District of Columbia. I have actually lived in Iowa, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. I lived on USAF bases in Texas and Massachusetts. I also traveled in 24 countries, living in Germany, Turkey, and Israel, and stationed by the USAF in The Republic of the Philippines for eighteen months.
I have yet to live on another planet, but if that ever happens, there'll be something I can use for my stories. Travel!
I was told while attempting, and failing, to grow up, that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to "experience life," which meant be exposed to a variety of different jobs for background material. I believe this is a valid point, at least from my own experience.
Here's a (partial) compilation of different kinds of work I have performed over the centuries: morning paperboy, corn detasseler, stockboy in California liquor store, shipping department in women's dress factory, rotocast operator in auto parts factory (made arm rests, head rests), Chaplain's Assistant in USAF (Republic of Philippines and Hanscom Field, Massachusetts), bar back in Officers' Club in Germany, grapefruit harvester on Kibbutz Y'fat near Nazareth, Israel, insurance sales (I hated sales), Teaching-Parent in community-based therapeutic group homes in North Carolina, consultant/trainer/evaluator for such group homes, English professor, and professional writer. I have also milked Bulldogs, but that's another story.
Did all those jobs help me become a better writer? Yes, I think they did. Wide exposure to different people, cultures, and countries is a great education. So, yes, I do recommend a variety of experiences for writers. I do NOT recommend milking Bulldogs, however.
I am not even close to being a legal expert, but I have friends who are. On a novel I'm working on (stand-alone, not Thomas O'Shea), I was into my 11th chapter and hit a roadblock. The protagonist reports seeing two men commit a murder. Then he asks the sheriff, "Are you going to arrest them?" And up jumped the roadblock. Could a person be arrested on heresy? If so, then what? When does the District Attorney get involved, would the men be jailed, how much would bail be? And more questions.
So I contacted a friend of mine who's been a county prosecutor and is now a defense attorney. Invited him to lunch and sat down, munched out, and the questions flowed. He cleared up several key details to keep me from sounding like an ignoramus. The novel is not going to be a legal thriller, but I did need to know a few important facts before I could move on. He supplied them, we enjoyed lunch, and he said he'd be glad to help anytime. Roadblocks blown to pieces.
So, let me encourage you writers out there to be sure that the writing ground you're standing on is not shifting sand. Don't hesitate to tap into the expertise of your friends. You might be surprised to see how eager they are to help you. Just don't forget to acknowledge them when you're published.