Being a Better Writer: Using Food

A quick reminder to start keeping a list of your ideas for future Being a Better Writer articles! Topic List #15 is almost out of topics, which means there will soon be a topic call and a chance to make your requests for ideas and topics heard!

Got it? Good! Because today we’re diving right into our topic, which was inspired by a writing chat I hang out on. You ready? Today we’re talking about food.

Ah food. That subject that everyone has an opinion on. Food is as basic a part of the human lifestyle—or really any living lifestyle—that it’s ubiquitous to existence.

With that in mind, to kick this post off, I want you readers to try a little thought experiment for me. I want you to think of a memory of a favorite holiday. Got one in mind? Now analyze it: was food in that memory somewhere?

There’s a fairly high chance that it was. What kind of food may have varied, but some of you may have even been able to almost taste it as you imagined that holiday.

All right, now let’s try a second little experiment. Just read the following things and see what sort of thoughts pop up at the prompt. Ready? Go!

  • County Fair
  • Wedding
  • Shopping
  • Exercise
  • Business meeting
  • Birthday
  • Break

All right, made it through the list? Now, this may have been tempered a bit by the topic, but how many of you thought of foods associated with those events, activities, etc?

Sure, it might be something simple, like donuts at a business meeting (the 90s standard) or snacking on a break. It might be wedding cake or onion blooms at a county fair. But all of these activities, in one way or another, can, and most likely will, involve food!

However … if you were to look at those events in a book of some kind … how many might skip over the food altogether? More than a few, actually. And those books?

They’re missing out.

The reason I opened with the exercises I did was to set up a point: Exactly how much of our memories of activities or events may be tied into one of our primary five senses. In this case the sense being taste.

I’ve written about the five senses before for Being a Better Writer, talking about how there are some senses that come naturally to writing—such as touch—and those that many writers forget altogether, such as smell.

Well, taste is another one of the “five senses” we talk about and live with day to day and yet … we tend to leave it out of writing quite often. It doesn’t show up much. In fact, I can think of entire books I’ve read where the story never once mentions food or a character eating.

This is a massive missed opportunity for character depth. How? Why? Well, let me reply with an analogy. Suppose you had a friend or colleague that you spent time with regularly. Entire days even, due to work or some other deal. But in all that time, you notice something: They never eat. Or drink.

Not once. Not ever.

Now, at first you might just shrug it off, but the more time you spend with this person, the more … noticeable … something like that might get. Especially when you offer food and they don’t take it. Eventually, it’s going to be weird.

So it is with our characters. One of the challenges of writing a character is making them human (regardless of species), of giving them depth and relatable personality to the readers. And if we have our character never once reference basic living functions like eating … well, we’ve made our job that much harder, haven’t we?

“All right,” some of you may be thinking. “This is all well and good, but so what? Do I just mention my character having a bite to eat from time to time?”

Well … yes. You could do that. Or you could go further and use food in another way, one that brings the world to life. Or rather, provides a backdrop piece of set dressing that will help bring your world to life, and inform the reader of the little details that hold it together.

Perplexed? Or at least, wondering where I’m going with this? All right, I want you to try another exercise. Picture an American breakfast. Got that image—whatever it is—in your head? Good! What was it like?

Now picture a Japanese breakfast. You might have to Google this one if you can’t.

Now a Brazilian lunch. German Dinner. Indian breakfast.

Okay, now why? Well, for a pretty straightforward reason. That I’ll now distract from with another question: What if I asked you to imagine the same list from a hundred years ago? Three hundred?

A thousand?

Well, obviously you’d think of a different meal because times were different, right? Today sushi is a “luxury meal” that’s pricier than say, a burger, but go back a few-hundred years? Sushi and foods like lobster were commoner food. Trash eating. The peasants ate those. The nobility would have been insulted to have been served them.

Understanding of meals changes too. For example, go back five centuries and no one is eating tomatoes, for example. Some modern food preparation styles may not have existed. Etc etc.

Okay, so why am I telling you all about this? Well, consider this for a minute. You have a character in a book you’re writing walk into a dinner. What do they see on the table. And what in turn does that tell your reader about the world? What might any observations the character makes about the food the characters are eating tell your reader about this setting?

I’ll give you two examples. The first is from Colony and Jungle. In that series, I’ve made it a point to have some of the character conversations happen over boxed meals that are common meal forms from all over the nations of Earth. And none of the characters find this odd or even out of place, showing that for all its faults, the Earth of the series is better connected in some areas. At the same time, a lot of the meat is noted to be artificial or “vat-grown,” and that same chain of observation extends to Pisces where a few lines here and there note that a lot of their food is made out of gene-tweaked seaweed products.

Then there’s Shadow of an Empire. The scene I’ll mention here is the cold-cut sandwich Sali eats on the train while reading the news. While it seems ordinary, it’s a cold-cut sandwich on a train in an 18th-century similar setting. Both how it is served (on a plate kept cool by the setting’s magic) and the fact that he can order a cold cut sandwich in that setting tells the reader things about the world.

In other words, food is something that’s common across all culture but also tells us a lot about that culture. That’s why it’s one thing that anthropologist study. What people eat, when, how … all of it tells us things about the culture and world that the food comes from! It can help us understand how their culture is laid out, what sort of crops and animals they focus on farming … all sorts of things!

Now, this information might be important to your story … or it may not. You don’t have to go into Redwall-levels of food description. Nor should you make sure that every mealtime your character passes is remarked on in some way.

But by the same token, we shouldn’t ignore it either. It doesn’t need to be a focus, but outright pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t helping our work either. Food is an important part of culture, of living. You want living characters? Have them take a bite of something because they were hungry.

Now, there’s one last thing I want to talk about discussing this topic: memory.

So above I brought up Redwall, which is well known for its very descriptive feasts (and with good reason all around too). In fact, I’d imagine if you asked someone who’d read any of the series what they remembered of the food, they’d be able to tell you quite a lot.

Why? Well, because human beings place quite a bit of memory on taste. Taste which food provides. So in the case of Redwall, even though many of us couldn’t really eat the food each feast in the series provided, we could imagine it based off of things that we’d tasted and enjoyed. And once we did that, it made the memory all the strong.

Or rather, I should say, it can make our perception of the world all the stronger because we associate the taste with it. And in doing so, we strengthen the memory, our perception, really, of that moment.

It’s funny, you wouldn’t think a chapter with a character eating a cold-cut sandwich would stand out in a giant novel like Shadow of an Empire. And yet I’ve seen a number of fan comments and responses talking about that chapter. And yes, the sandwich. Even when some were not sure why the sandwich was mentioned … they still remembered it quite clearly.

Taste, like smell, and as I said above, is associated with memory. This isn’t to say that you should plug your book full of tastes and food, but rather that when you include such things, your reader will remember it. Placing food, then, at a key scene where important plot points are discussed over a dinner of some kind, could make those plot points more easily recalled by a reader.

Or not. Like most writing tools, food is one you’ll want to play with and experiment on to see where it brings you the most value.

But at the end of this post, I do hope that’s what you’ve taken away from this: That food in a story or a book is a valuable tool. Not only does it make your characters more real, regardless of what they consume, but it also serves as an excellent way to flesh out the culture of a setting. Even just puzzling for a brief moment, I can think of several books or series where food was presented as a means to provide depth to the world as well as the characters.

Plus, we like food. Food endears us to people, places, and events. And yes, even books. Food is a fantastic tool we shouldn’t discard or leave at the bottom of our toolbox. We won’t always need it, but when used it can be like the filigree on a sculpture that brings it all together.

So, think on food next time you write something. What characters eat. What they discuss. Their social rules and taboos?

Food can take your readers a lot of places. Get the tool out of the toolbox and give it some work.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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