A few months back, I read this blog post about why it’s important for writers to travel. Certainly if a writer is setting a story in a place, he or she should have a good knowledge and understanding of that place if they want to sound like they know what they’re talking about. But more than that, the experience of travel — any experience, really — gives the writer (or any other type of artist) gravitas that can’t be easily faked.
Our first night in Rome, we took a night walk from Piazza Navona to the Pantheon, then by the Parliament building, then to the Trevi Fountain, then to the Spanish Steps. I had a moment between the Pantheon and Parliament.
We turned away from the ancient building to fill our water bottles at the public fountain in the center of the piazza. It was our first taste of the water that we’d seen people drinking and using to wash their hands and faces. Tiny rivers filled the cracks in the cobblestones around the fountain’s drain. The water was cold and as fresh as anything that would come out of a tap back home.
The map told us to head north out of the piazza. The short walk to Parliament took longer than it should have because we stopped to peek into shop windows to make note of things we might want to come buy the next day. The lane narrowed between two restaurants whose patios stretched into the street. As I passed through, diners’ laughter, the twinkle of candles on the tables and the thick aromas of pasta and grilled meat met me from each side.
A short Italian man strolled by, lazily squeezing his accordion, veering toward the patios in hopes that someone would request a song, but acting like he just cruised the neighborhood all the time. I looked up to the stars that winked from their perches in the black sky, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The cobblestones under my feet, the music, the food, the cool night air… this is why I came. This is Italy.
I really did stop and take inventory of that moment, and (geek alert!) I totally teared up, too. If I wrote that scene into a story I wouldn’t have to make any of it up, and hopefully it would come across more legit than if I’d never experienced it and was just guessing.
My book has a lot of “inspired by a true story” moments. They come from things that really happened to members of both sides of my family. I hope I’ve given them the gravitas they deserve. And I’m going to pay extra sharp attention to things that happen in the present, big moments and small. Any one of them could be a moment worth writing down.