Earl’s barbecue: why a writer should learn about something before he writes about it



I am an inveterate researcher, a person who once on a mission to learn about something becomes obsessed with the topic.

The Internet is  made for that kind of stuff.

The whole world of information is at a person’s fingertips.

Or maybe not.

Believe it or not, there are topics a person can’t master sitting at a keyboard and watching a computer screen.

True research still requires a writer to go places, search through stacks of old papers, walk the streets of a town, watch the sunset on the beach, visit a spot where a battle occurred, pay homage at the grave of a fallen hero.

There is no substitute for it.

If a writer doesn’t take time to talk to people, to pick their brains, to listen to them tell stories about what they do, he will miss the gateway to human experience.  Stories in novels are really no different than stories in life.  In a hour listening to people talk about themselves, any author worth his salt should have a dozen plot lines boiling in his head.

That’s one type of research.

The other sort of research involves specialized training, expert advice.  A person will need to hang out with the pros to garner this information.

But that doesn’t mean he must visit a doctor or lawyer, an accountant or an educator. Rather, there are all sorts of experts.

Barbecue for instance.

Saturday, my wife and I attended a company party for her work that took place out in the country at an employee’s home. The host was the chef.  A truck driver by trade, on the side for a number of years, he has become a caterer of barbecue, cooked on a wood smoker.

My god.

We’re talking the best brisket and ribs I’ve ever eaten.  Homemade sauce to go with it.

I sat at the table in the shade of a catalpa tree (that’s catawba in East Texan) with the chef and a couple of other men, and we eventually got around to discussing his recipe.

“I don’t mind telling anybody what the ingredients are,” he said.  “But that don’t mean they know how much of each one to put in the mix.”

Spoken like a master chef.

I learned how long he cooked the meat, at what temperature and a few other techniques.

But I still don’t have a clue how to duplicate his end product.

I suppose the moral  is that when it comes to some topics, a person can do a lot of research, but he may still come up short.

That’s the beauty of fiction writing.  An author can take the facts as far as he can.

Then he can fake it, and his character can cook barbecue as good as Earl’s.

At least on paper.


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