A few years ago, I had the good fortune of having one of my stories picked up by Glimmer Train. It wasn't just any old story though, it was one of the first stories I'd written and it's no exaggeration to say that my career shifted course when issue #72 appeared. I was suddenly taken more seriously by editors at other literary journals and—holy smoke!—strangers even began sending emails telling me how the narrative moved them in some way. Still to this day, I'm monumentally grateful that "57 Gatwick" came to me.
My debut collection of short fiction, The Collector of Names, is out this month and "57 Gatwick" is sitting in the pole position of the table of contents. If you open the book, it's the first story you'll see. I like how this echoes my own publishing history—the first story in the collection is the first story I became known for—but something else is at work here too. You see, "57 Gatwick" is loosely based upon the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. As it turns out, one of my family members had the horrifying job of mapping where all the debris fell—engines, suitcases, the black box, and more. This meant he got to know the grieving families because they wanted to know where their loved ones fell to earth on that December night in 1988. I wanted to write about this, but I quickly realized that if I didn't change the location I'd have to write an historical account, not a fictional one.
This brings me to the title of this post: "Writing what you don't know." Anybody who has been in a writing workshop has heard the phrase, "write what you know," but I find it more useful to take the opposite approach. By writing what is unknown and foreign, I'm forced to step outside of myself and see the world with new eyes. Not only does this mean I have to focus on settings that are unfamiliar to me, it also means my main character is seeing the world in a way that is also new. By writing what I don't know, I have to be more observant about the fictional world that I'm creating.
In "57 Gatwick" I had to study Pan Am 103 very closely and, in fact, many of the smaller details in this story are retellings of what actually happened over Scotland. While I enjoy research and getting out into the world, I have also discovered that if I ask people about their jobs, they usually open up in the most breathtaking of ways. Just by telling someone that I'm a writer often means they'll open up about their daily lives in ways they normally wouldn't for others. Maybe it's the veil of fiction they're trusting? Maybe they know only part of themselves will be stitched into the fabric of the tale I'm spinning?
I've learned this much: everyone has an interesting story they keep locked away in their skull. This is an iron-clad rule. And, if you don't know what to write next, go interview someone at a job that seems strange to you. Something will spark your imagination when you visit them.
A few years ago, I wasn't sure what my next story should be, so I started to wonder about where stories haven't been set. After some thought, I realized I hadn't read a story that takes place in a burn unit, so I asked our local hospital if I could talk to a few nurses. Not only were they incredibly gracious with their time, so were their patients. One woman suffered from third degree burns all over her legs (a deep fat fryer at a hamburger joint was accidentally spilled onto her) and although she was in great pain, she wanted to tell her story. I entered her space and listened. I also learned about Ativan, Silvadene, Bacitracin, Flexinet, and ketamine. Autograft and xenograft. Debriding.
I then chatted with our local fire chief and he told me things that he probably doesn't share with many others. While I was talking with him, a story bubbled up in my head. After several days of work, the first draft of "Burn Unit" was slowly juddering out of my printer. But I never would have come up with it on my own. It was only by writing what I didn't know that I was able to find the story.
The same was true for "Living with the Dead" where I stepped into the world of an undertaker. For "The Missing" I talked to Vietnam vets in order to understand one of my characters better. And before writing "Cabin #5," I interviewed Iraq War vets, as well as their spouses, so that I might know what it's like to come home from Baghdad or Mosul.
In other words, writing what I don't know has totally transformed my writing. It's made me care more about my characters—yes—but it has also made my vision sharper when I look at my literary landscape. I see things better and I've learned that if I write about what's new to me, it will necessarily feel new to the reader. All of this broadens my worldview as a human being and it reminds me how similar we are to each other.
I'm humbled that my novel, The Commandant of Lubizec, has been resonating with people across the country and I believe one reason it's striking a chord is that I did an incredible amount of research on the Holocaust. I visited Poland on three separate occasions. I walked the soil of such infamous death camps as Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec. I spent over 30 hours in Auschwitz. I talked to survivors. Because I wrote about what I didn't know, I felt enormous pressure to get the story right. Given the reaction I'm getting from readers, it seems that I did get it right.
But it all started with "57 Gatwick."
That it's the first story in The Collector of Names feels absolutely appropriate to me. After all, it was a key that unlocked my writing career in more than just one way.