Writing a novel calls for total immersion, sometimes with fruitful results

When I was a journalist in both newspapers and television, I embraced “immersion journalism,” reporting on a story by participating in it, immersing myself in the situations and the people involved.

As a result, I once climbed into firefighter turnout gear and crawled around on my stomach in a “smoky” building to search for victims using a thermal imaging camera, floated around in an icy pond until first responders threw me a rope and pulled me out, rode around with a state trooper stopping motorists for DWI one New Year’s Eve, and strapped on roller skates and took a few whirls for a story about a roller rink that had been in a community since the 1930s and was closing down.

I believe that immersion techniques also work well with novel writing. Author Heather Sellers writes about this in her book, Chapter after Chapter: Discover the Dedication and Focus you Need to Write the Book of Your Dreams. “If you don’t surround yourself with your book, you risk it creeping away from you—or you unintentionally creep away from it,” she says.

grilled_chicken240To avoid the drift that Sellers refers to and bring authenticity to my story, I recently borrowed from the library a copy of Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal, a cookbook written by restaurateur and Senegalese native Pierre Thiam. I was particularly interested in the recipe for Yassa Ginaar, grilled chicken with lime-onion sauce.

My unpublished novel features a Senegalese restaurant owner who makes delicious meals for the customers in the immigrant community where he lives. One of his specialties happens to be Yassa Ginaar. I thought it would be neat to prepare the recipe, just as my character would.

The recipe calls for juicing 10 limes and grating the zest from three of them. I never knew how hard it would be to peel limes. Their skin is very thin, far different from lemons. Also I had to cut up five onions, julienne style, something I had never done before.  I also had to get my hands on a habenero pepper, a tiny pepper that I had never seen before in the supermarket, but apparently has been there for quite some time.

After rubbing in the ingredients into the chicken I had to let it marinade for a few hours. Once I had my husband try it. I could tell by the look on his face that something was wrong. The taste of lime was overpowering. I had miscalculated the proportions. The meal was a disaster. I tried to save it by soaking the food in cooked white rice (my husband’s idea) but the next day the dish was as sour as it was the first. However, the effort wasn’t a total loss. I gained an appreciation for what goes into Senegalese cooking, particularly in Yaasa Ginaar. I gained more of an appreciation for the restaurateur in my novel and the effort he takes to create savory meals or the public. I kept this in mind as I revised the scene in which he prepares this (usually) tasty dish.

Local restaurant serves up real-life inspiration for my manuscript

Teranga's Stephane Lamour

Teranga’s Stephane Lamour

One of the characters in my yet-to-be-published novel is a restaurant owner from Senegal. He serves sumptuous meals that keep the other characters coming back to patronize him. Not so coincidentally, many of the dishes served are inspired by selections on the menu of real-life Senegalese restaurant Teranga in Boston’s South End.

Owner, Marie-Claude Mendy, has been a great help to me in learning more about the Senegalese culture, taking the time to gather her friends for lively conversations with me. Teranga serves as the inspiration for the restaurant in my manuscript. I’ve done my best to accurately depict what it’s like to go to a Senegalese restaurant and how appealing the food is.

Pictured above is Teranga’s Stephane Lamour, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts,  preparing a delicious coconut appetizer from the m