Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Food in Fiction

I'm one of those people who don't like overly detailed descriptions of a character's looks. I want the barest brushstrokes to guide my inner vision - a proximate height, a build and coloring. A penchant for long flowing skirts and army boots. That's enough. Any more and I feel tied down. Especially in a main character where I hope to inhabit this person, go along with her story and emotions. If she's got grey-green eyes with blond eyebrows, seven freckles per cheek and a nose like a button mushroom. I lose some interest. Because I'm being told exactly what to see, instead of letting my imagination sketch in the image.

The exact opposite is true for descriptions of food. So many books skim over the details of meals the protagonists eat - It was a fine meal with excellent wine. They ate well of many delicacies. He grabbed a sandwich and a bag of chips. WHAT MEAL? WHAT DELICACIES? WAS IT DORITOS OR FUNYONS?

These are questions I must have answers to. Because, more than a person's physical description, food description anchors the time, place and mood. Food should give clues about characters. What they worry about, what they indulge in. Because we have to eat so often (say, compared to a boa constrictor) we get to make new choices several times a day. Those choices reflect on us, even more than the clothes we wear and our hair cuts - choices we make less often.

In Maggie Stiefvater's THE SCORPIO RACES, there's food and blood and hunger. And there are November Cakes. November Cakes are not only a food item - an expensive luxury for Puck Connelly and her brothers - they're also a symbol of the isle of Thisby and the violent, chaotic and profitable festival they hold each November. It represents the lifeblood of the island, how dependent they are on the tourists that flock to see the Scorpio Races. November Cakes are part of the culture.

No one dies for a November Cake. A November Cake doesn't win the Scorpio Races. But the description of food in THE SCORPIO RACES is as much a character in the book as any other. It is vital.

Don't let your main character walk out of her next scene carrying a bag of nondescript sustenance - leave that for the Soylent food-substitute crowd. Treat food in fiction like the rich layer of meaning it should be.

I stumbled upon a website - Food Adventures (in fiction)  - and immediately fell in love. They have a picture of - and recipe to make - November Cakes. I'm going to try them this weekend.

What about you? How do you handle food in your fiction?
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