Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eating Alligator

No vegan here--I like meat. Steaks, chicken, pork and fish, they all spend time on my grill, but the list doesn’t stop there. I subscribe to the old expression, “When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do.”  So, when I did my tour in Vietnam, I ate whatever locals offered...variations on trash fish (carp), dog, cat and roasted rat. I even ate snake a couple of times, but I couldn’t “do” the black beetles that old peasant women sucked until it turned their teeth jet black. That was just too much for me.

The most-asked question by people who know my background was, “What does dog, cat, snake, rat...pick one...taste like?” Not to be cliché, but they really do taste like dark meat of chicken, especially dog.

Prevailing wisdom in writing advice is to “write what you know.”  Yeah, right. If you’ve never experienced it, how do you describe a main character’s reaction to eating wild boar right off a whole, roasted pig during a Hawaiian luau? Maybe common “pulled pork” would taste the same and provide similar texture, but I doubt it. I’ve got it! In the name of research, you justify a “quick” trip to Molokai to hunt wild boar with a knife and help prepare it for the fire before joining natives in a traditional feast. Then, representations of your character’s experience are realistic.

The point of this blog is that writers do not always have the opportunity to “write what they know” from real life experience. Tom Clancy never drove a submarine before writing The Hunt for Red October. Let’s say your main character is running from the law and hides in an obscure Cajun village in bayou country. Will she eat alligator when it’s offered? What does it taste like? I’ll bet it tastes like chicken! So, here you are, stopped cold in your typing-tracks, wondering what alligator tastes like. “No big deal," you think. Maybe you can write around it...make the meal catfish or bass, instead. Then, you struggle with an important story-fact as you remind yourself, “She’s supposed to fall in love with this Cajun guy whose naked chest ripples with natural muscles under deeply tanned skin." Her difficulty eating alligator was supposed to cause teasing that sparks the new relationship. What to do?

I say damn the write-what-you-know rule. Full speed ahead. The truth is, that over-used writing cliché requires a caveat...write what you know, or research the hell out of it. That’s right, research can substantially expand “what you know.” Tom Clancy’s extensive research about submarine technology and naval warfare principles astounded authorities with how realistic his scenes were. If he only wrote what he knew, his book would have been “The Hunt for Red Insurance Brokers”. Clancy's research shows what extensive study of a topic can accomplish and is a great lesson for writers. Fiction writers do not need to be trapped by “what you know”, because the extent of your “experience” is limited only by the ability to do good research. Now, I wonder if I can buy alligator the name of research, of course.


  1. Somehow I think “The Hunt for Red Insurance Brokers” would've been a flop. Yep, research can make a big difference, and it's so much easier today than 25 years ago (internet and all). Just have to make sure the sources are reliable.

  2. I've also discovered that research can lead to expanded story lines or beneficial side plots. The internet is an amazing place. Fortunately, most online research can be traced to credible (or not credible) sources. Man, writing is fun!

  3. ...So, does this mean you haven't actually gone into outerspace?

  4. Okay, Michelle, I admit I wrote The Last Human War without actually going into space...though, not for the lack of wanting to!


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