As a writer I always privileged imagination over experience. That is, I thought that you didn't have to really know a place or thing to write about it. As I think more about my writing, I've realised that the best, the most evocative, the most immediate writing for me does come out of my own experience.
A brave and good friend read my manuscript recently and commented that the section on Marburg was dry compared to my description of Batavia. She could see and feel the jungle and the islands, but Marburg didn't leap off the page. Even though I had been to Marburg in Germany, I hadn't been attentive at that time to the atmosphere and place. Hey give me a break. I was a fairly newly wed graduate student on her first trip to Europe, meeting many newly acquired relatives, none of whom spoke English. I was simply overwhelmed.
My writing about Asia on the other hand came from the experience of living there, smelling the decaying jungle, feeling the sweat, tasting the food -- real life.
This time when we went to Marburg, I went to taste and smell, look and experience so that I can write in a more immediate real way about the Jaeckels and their life. I walked from the castle to the church. I sat on the steps of the church feeling the cold stone and eating hot bratwurst. I noticed the contrast between the freezing air and the hot food, my warm hands and my cold face. I listened to the river rushing past the town in full spate. I walked alongside the river detouring where the path was closed due to high water. I wandered through the Christmas market that flowed right up to the walls of Elizabethkirke. I smelt the almonds roasting, the dead leaves and the damp cold. I noticed the contrast between the dark, cold early nights and the bright lights of the shops. I pressed against the windows of bakeries to look at the piles of Christmas goodies and everyday loaves. I watched the shopkeepers and how they talked with customers. I saw the icicles hanging off the statues and the fountains boarded up for winter. I drank in all the everyday details.
And I hope that this will reflect in my writing and rewriting and writing again.