Monday, June 27, 2016

Food for Thought

Today we talk about food.  Or more specifically, it's place in a story.  Food is one of those things where everyone knows that it is there, or should be there, but no one really knows where to put it, or how to talk about it.  In other words, food a bit of an elephant in the room for writers. 

Also, this post is late.  Really sorry about that.

Also this should technically be Faith's post.  She's really busy and totally forgot that she had a blog, so here I am.

Now then, back to food.  I love food, and I love it to pieces.  I love it maybe a little too much.  Particularly chocolate.  Chocolate is the best.  Anyway, as I said, food is a bit of an awkward subject for writers because it doesn't usually have any use in the story, but everyone knows it's there.  I am going to provide some points, if you ever can't decide whether or not to put food or descriptions of food in your story, but first I'm going to talk a little about it's significance in a setting, adding a little history for good measure. 

There are two main equations to remember when writing.  Food = Status, and Food = Ethnicity.  Let me explain:
Brown bread and vegetable soup?  Probably a Medieval, European, peasant.
Pizza, soda, and cheese puffs?  Probably a middle-class, 21st century, American.
Corn bread, vegetables, and sausage?  Probably an 18th century, middle-class American.
Anything created from thin air and served by a robot?  Probably somewhere in the future.
Cookies?  Probably a follower of the Dark Side.
As you can see, food is something that helps secure the setting and give you an idea of the kinds of people you're reading about.  A peasant would not be eating a rabbit unless he stole it, therefore if you read about one eating such a thing, you can imagine that he is a bit of a law-breaker, and will probably end up in trouble with the law.  However, a peasant who eats only vegetables, herbs, and fish on Fridays, would come across as a decent, respectable fellow, who knows his place.  As another example, you wouldn't find a medieval lady eating coarse brown bread, and if she was, you could guess that something was terribly wrong.  

When describing food, you should only have to talk about it once or twice.  This will come up more in the tips bit, but for now here's some advice on how to introduce your readers to the feast. 

First of all, use words that fit the kind of food your characters are eating.  For example, don't say "the juicy peacock", say "the succulent peacock".  A very rich person is eating that peacock, and "succulent" evokes a much fancier, more upper-class image.  

Also remember that whatever food you're describing, even if it's new to the reader, is probably very normal to the character who's eating it.  If you have a member of the Holy Roman Empire who eats fish every Friday, he will be used to the event even if fish is the last food he'd like eat.  If it is perfectly normal for your character to push a few buttons and have an all-you-can-eat buffet appear in front of him, then he's not going to think much of doing so.  In other words, don't act like it's totally new for Michael to eat fish on Fridays, or for Joe to push buttons and eat his buffet, because it's not, and it should not be described that way.  

Okay now for the tips.  

#1.  If your character is a foodie, so are you.
This basically means if you have a main character who's interested in food wherever he goes, you are going to be describing food wherever he goes.  When he goes to a festival, you're going to go into more detail than usual about the lavishly spread tables and the red, glistening wines.  Home is not so important and can usually be mentioned in passing, but if Andrew loves a good pretzel he's going to notice the shining, salted treats lying in a tray at the baker's stall, just waiting for him to spend that penny he'd been saving for a chicken.  

#2.  Big events require at least a paragraph.
Is there a feast at the castle?  A party at the Capitol?  A black-tie dinner at the local museum, by invitation only?  Well then you've got to talk about what they're eating, and you've got to do it well.  These sorts of things don't require as much detail as foodie Andrew up above, but you've got to mention the cakes and champagne, and the peacock surrounded by jellies of all sorts.  

#3.  Is there a deviation from the norm?
If your fine lady is dressed in silk and eating strawberries and cream, why should we care?  But if this fine lady in all her silks is dining on thin vegetable soup, something is not normal.  Describe this change, and do mention why at some point.  Why is she spooning the watery, tasteless mush to her mouth?  Does she suffer from some complaint which caused the physician to recommend nothing but gruel for a month?  Is she poor?  Silk can last, but food must be bought every day.

#4.  And last but not least...what's for dinner?
Aaaah, home life.  Not the most exciting, usually, but vital.  If Marigold spends a lot of time at home, you don't really need to talk about every meal.  Of course, if she's binge-eating her favorite chocolate-peanut butter-cheesecake ice cream, that might need mentioning.  However if dear Marigold is rarely home and only returns for quick visits, you should describe the meals a little more.  She might miss her mother's pork roast with apples and green beans, or she might groan at the thought of eating another plate full of baked potato with rice and orange slices.  Whatever her feelings, the dish should be described accordingly.

All that being said, food is an important part of life, and always ought to be entered at least briefly.  It tells us things about the setting that we might not have gathered otherwise.  Keep talking about food, and keep eating food, because food is yummy and you need it to live.

I'll be in my hobbit-hole and tea is at four,
Grace Weiser






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