Last month I took a five-day trip to San Juan Island in Washington State. It was meant to be a vacation of cycling, hiking, and kayaking. No writing, no research, no interviews. Just a vacation. And it was – until the second day. That morning we cycled to San Juan Island Historical Park and I learned about the Pig War of 1859 that led to a twelve-year joint occupation on opposite ends of the island by British and American troops. In the end, the only casualty was a pig. But it became an International Incident that was eventually settled by the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm I.
And so my vacation turned into a research trip. I still went hiking and cycling and kayaking, but I also bought books at the park’s visitor centers, explored the two military camps, photographed plaques along the trails, questioned the park rangers, and began to plot a story. This is not the first time a story has leaped out at me from the bushes. And, if truth be told, I really do prefer a vacation with a focus.
Memo #1 to self: Never throw away potentially tax-deductible boarding passes and travel receipts.
Memo #2 to self: Kayak rental is tax-deductible, for how else could I experience the tricky winds and currents that drowned several English soldiers?
An old adage tells us to write about what we know. I disagree. I choose to write about what I don’t know, but want to learn. Full disclosure: I – and other writers I could name, but won’t – enjoy research at least as much, and sometimes more than, writing. Especially when it means traveling to beauty spots like the Pacific Northwest.
Is that why I lean towards writing nonfiction? Perhaps.
Friday, September 4, 2009