Real life –– at least as I live it –– is not as dramatic as a good story. Every morning, I shuffle into the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee, read the paper, and then embark on a day filled with extraordinary . . . routine. On days when I'm writing, usually the only two characters in the house are my computer and me. (Well, to be fair, my talking budgie in the next room supplies some of the day's dialogue, but that's more humorous than dramatic.) Although my days are occasionally punctuated with excitement, both welcome and not, any story based on my experiences would likely create more yawns than rave reviews. Instead, I write what I don't know –– or rather, I learn what I don't know.
When I was in college, one of my professors marveled at a student who had written a convincing story about Vietnam even though she had never been there. That comment was the first inkling that the "write what you know" rule could, and perhaps should, be broken. Right then, I made it my goal to never limit my fictional material to what I knew first-hand. Instead, I would embrace the research required to tell the story I wanted. Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, the web, and the extensive databases available to educators have become part of my writing life. I learn as much as I need to know to seem as though I am an expert.
The trick with writing outside one's experience is to create believability. Writers need to supply enough details to make it seem real without overburdening the narrative with facts and statements. Here, the imagination, the writer's most powerful tool, takes over. For example, when I was writing Captivity, a novel about the director of a chimpanzee sanctuary, I researched enough about chimpanzee behavior to enable me to imagine what was possible, just as I do with human characters. When I wrote about Tornado Alley, a place I had never visited, I accumulated photographs and described the scenery in my story by imagining how my characters would see it. I have researched art fraud, Victorian riddles, Asian cultures, rat anatomy, and a slew of other topics, all for the sake of writing interesting fiction.
Of course, I ended up writing what I did know, although none of it is based on my own experience except marginally, through the emotions and the characterizations and my unique imagination. The research pays off when readers ask, "How long did you work with chimpanzees?" or "Were you an art history major?" Those questions give me the courage to branch out yet again, to another topic I don't know much about, so I can deliver a story unlike anything I have ever written.
Causes Debbie Wesselmann Supports
The Jane Goodall Institute
Save the Chimps