When experience ends, imagination begins
One of my favorite parts of the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling, is when they pour the memories into the Pensieve of Hogwarts. If you are unfamiliar, the Pensieve is a bowl that a person can pour a stored memory into, and then they place their face into the bowl and they can then experience the memory themselves, as if they were there when the memory took place, even if its not their own memory. Its very cool and imaginative and depicts the details of the memory.
Every hour, of every day, we experience a million details around us that contribute to our own memories. Details like a sweatshirt draped over a chair, the sky being blue, or the wind softly blowing through the trees. While most of those details are over looked or forgotten as soon as the moment has passed, they set the scene for what we each experience in our lives day in and day out.
When I wrote my first story, I would imagine myself sticking my head into a pensieve of my character's memories so I can imagine those details. This helped me to dip into the story to experience it myself. How would I feel if it were pouring raining out and I was late for my first day at work? What would I do if someone treated me in a way my character is being treated? What would the people around me be doing if I were doing X? All of these questions and more are necessary to get at the heart of the details that will add richness and depth to a story.
As a writer, the fine details are like gold; tiny nuggets of information that can help me to bring the story to life and help my readers experience it as well. In my first book, my main protagonist has a rocky relationship with his mother, but she was his friend, even though he didn't realize it. Throughout the story, they have two arguments that really define their relationship.
After I wrote the story and had a few friends read it, several of them commented about the mom, specifically they loved her character and how she was portrayed in the story. Even though she is a nameless character, she is critical to the plot. What surprised me most was how surprised my friends were at how well I captured the emotion behind the mom and son, especially during the arguments, given that I don't have children of my own.
This is where experience ends and imagination takes over. And while there is a fine line between having the right amount of detail and having too much that it bogs down the reader, there is something to be said for dipping into the scene and writing it as if I were there.