I've heard the saying, "Write what you know." It's because to write well the reader needs to feel a sense of truth to the story and its characters. Even in fiction, that connection, that sense that something is ringing true, must be there.
I got thinking a lot about this idea when I was home over the holidays. It's tough when a loved one isn't around and the holidays come to being. A few years ago my grandpa passed away and every year since I've made a point of reflecting on stories about him with my grandma. It keeps him fresh in our minds in the most wonderful of ways.
My grandpa grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn back before Williamsburg let along Brooklyn became a trendy place to live. At the time, he was the only Irish family in an all Italian neighborhood. He grew up surrounded by Italians, eating Italian food, and ultimately marrying an Italian woman. My grandma admitted to me this past Christmas that my grandpa tried to join an Italian-American club in his retirement years but without a lick of Italian blood in him, he was denied.
Don't get me wrong, there was definitely a part of my grandfather that was proud to be Irish but what he knew was Italian. He knew to win over my grandma's family he had to help make homemade wine, taste test fresh spaghetti sauce, and never protest when someone tells you to "eat more; you're too skinny." He got used to the family gatherings we have now where four people can presumably talk all at the time and at increasingly loud volumes and yet it's not an argument that's taking place, it's normal.
But how much of what we know needs to be in our writing and storytelling and how much of it can be imagination? How true can we be to an experience if we've read it or heard it but never lived it? What's the proper balance?
My grandpa went to Ireland a few years before he passed away. Part of him had to experience something he was connected to but knew little about. No one in his family was alive to tell him about Ireland; there were no traditions passed on; and certainly no family recipes. He didn't grow up among other Irish-American immigrant families or go to school with them. It was a factoid upon which he had no other observations or truths to bestow.
When he came back from Ireland, there was an excitement and a level of appreciation that I had never seen. It didn't change his history, however. He still preferred Italian food. He still loved his Italian wife. He still identified with all the things he had before. But, now, he could tell stories about Ireland too...and something about that was beautiful. Something about that made his own personal story seem more complete.
Sure we can't experience everything our characters do in fiction but we need to try our best to tap into their mindset, to do our research, or do as my grandfather had done and go out and explore. If we do then we'll not only have richer material from which to draw from, we'll become better storytellers too.