My new idea this year is to write a family cookbook with stories. Each person who contributes a recipe should also write a short story about food to go with it. For example, my mom’s mom had a tradition of serving fried oysters for Christmas dinner. If I included the fried oyster recipe in a cookbook, I would write up the story of how my dad had to buy them each year. To get the freshest oysters possible, my dad would go to the fish market in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Christmas Eve. Wheeling has a large Italian community, and seafood is the traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Italian families. My dad said he did not want to get in the way of an Italian grandmother and her seafood order.
Stories like that will make a family cookbook even more precious.
Have you given someone the gift of your writing for Christmas? What did you give?
I could write a whole book on how to use family relationships as inspiration for stories. So many writers have explored child/parent relationships, sibling relationships, inter-generational relationships, and more. So I took a different approach and listed 4 ways adding family enhances your writing, even if theses relationships aren’t fully explored.
Give depth to minor characters
f you want minor characters to be more than props for your major characters to work with, give them some kind of relative. For example, a detective may have to interview witnesses to a crime. A convenience store was held up, and two people who work in the book store across the street might have seen the thief. Make the two witnesses husband and wife, or brothers, or sisters, and then have them argue while the detective questions them. You’ll get the information you need to convey to the readers in a more entertaining manner by exploiting the family relationship.
Make major characters human
In action or thriller genres, it’s difficult to work in much backstory for your main characters without bogging down the pace of your writing. But without a backstory, the heroic main characters can come across as little more than devices to propel the plot. Giving them some sort of family member makes the hero more human and relatable to the reader.
Alfred Hitchcock usually exploited family relations to provide some depth to his main characters without slowing the headlong rush of his movies. In Stage Fright, the heroine seeks her father to help her when the police are pursuing a close friend. When Janet Leigh goes missing in Psycho, it’s her boyfriend and sister who come looking for her. In North By Northwest, Cary Grant has a mother who doesn’t believe enemy agents are stalking her son.
Need tension? Add a relative!
Any time characters clash, tensions results. But the tension is often greater when the clash is between relatives. If you write romance, have a relative, rather then a friend, object to the heroine’s boyfriend. If you write epic fantasy, have your hero battle an evil relative for the throne. Also, a main character who stumbles upon a family secret adds tremendous tension, especially if other relatives don’t want the secret revealed.
Need higher stakes? Add a relative!
When the fate of the whole world is at stake if the hero doesn’t stop the alien invasion/ mad genius/ bio-terrorists, the stakes are high. But giving the hero a family to worry about while she is trying to save the world raises the stakes for the reader. Knowing how failure will personally affect the hero ties the reader more closely to the hero’s efforts.
How can family relationships enhance your writing?
Did you have a memorable Thanksgiving? Even if you didn’t, give yourself the first gift of the Christmas season and write down what happened. Keeping a journal of what happens on holidays is a wonderful gift for yourself or anyone among your family or friends with whom you regularly celebrate.
This is year will go down in my family’s history as unique. Forty-five minutes before the food was ready to set out, my teenage niece called and said her family — my oldest sister, her husband and son — would be late. My niece gave no explanation. Puzzled, I hurried about, getting my church ready for our family Thanksgiving.
I ran home, got a load of food from my husband, and drove back to the church. After I carried the food into the church, Middle Sis told me Oldest Sis called her. They were running late because they discovered, as they walked out of the house to drive to the church, that their van had been stolen, and they were waiting for the police to arrive.
My jaw dropped, but fortunately, my hands were empty, or a bowl of potatoes might have joined it.
Also, fortunately, my husband was a little behind schedule, so when Oldest Sis and her family finally arrived in another vehicle, they were only ten minutes late.
Even better, this story has a happy ending. A cop stopped by Oldest Sis’s house on Friday and drove her to where they had recovered her van. The thief was driving it just a block away from her home. When he saw the police were after him, he leaped out of the car, and it ran into another vehicle parked in a drive. Still, Oldest Sis has her van back, along with her prescription sunglasses, and the insurance will pay for the damage to the front of the van.
The press that published From the Lake to the River, the anthology my short story “Debt to Pay” appeared in is officially launching and will hold a Facebook party November 26. I will be a featured author, when you can ask me anything, from 7:10-7:25 EST. I’d love to chat with all of you who have been so kind to follow my blog. For more details, click here.
I am excited to have my friend Sandra Merville Hart guest blogging today. Sandra specializes in Christian fiction set during the American Civil War. I mentioned her newest book, A Musket in My Hands, in my post last Thursday. It’s based on the fascinating, true stories of women who would disguise themselves as men to fight in the army. You can learn more about this novel after the interview. Welcome, Sandra!
Why did you select the Civil War as the time period for your novels?
I’ve been fascinated by the Civil War since childhood. Aunts and uncles discussed the turbulent period with my parents and grandparents around the supper table. While in elementary school, I asked them to explain. My aunt said, “It was a terrible time in our history. Brother fought against brother and father against son.” It sounded awful. I had a brother. I didn’t want to fight him in a war.
After that, every mention of the Civil War captured my attention. I always wanted to find out more. Choosing to set my novels in this tragic period of American history allowed me the freedom to research what had always fascinated me.
Which comes first – research or storyline?
For me, research comes first. I have to know what happened historically. I usually begin with only a hazy idea—a story question or a main character living in a particular town. History fills in the rest of the gaps.
For instance, studying events surrounding a particular battle shows what citizens endured as well as the soldiers. Once I know that, the story begins to build in me. I plop my characters in the midst of the turmoil to transport my readers back in time.
What resources do you rely on for research?
I use a variety of resources, beginning with nonfiction books about an event or time period that I check out from the library. I usually start with a stack of about twenty books. From there, I might check out more books as I expand my search to information available online.
I also plan a trip to the site of the Civil War battle, if at all possible. I visit the battle site and museums local to the battle. Usually there is someone working in the museum who is excited to talk about local history—what a treat to find someone like that! I eat in local diners and shop in quaint stores where I can talk to the folks who live there. In other words, I get a feel for the place. This adds a layer of authenticity to my novels.
What is the most unusual resource you have used?
Maps are a resource that most folks don’t think about, but I use them extensively. Finding a map that was drawn shortly before the time period covered by the novel is such a treasure! You may find that the Johnston family lived on Broadway Street above their mercantile. Or that the bank was located on Main Street across from a Farmer’s Market. The train depot was mere yards from Mrs. Jones’ Eatery. Incorporate these details where they fit into your story and you’ve added another layer of authenticity—especially for long-time residents of a city.
Interesting! I’ve used maps, too, when researching the setting for my short story and novel. What advice would you give to someone interested in writing historical fiction?
Don’t neglect the research. Even if your novel isn’t set around a particular event, discover something about what was happening historically. Maybe a couple of men reading a newspaper on a train discuss the next presidential election or a stagecoach robbery out West or how the crops need rain. Two women talk about the next play starting at their city’s theater or a traveling circus coming to town or last week’s church picnic while their children play on the town’s square.
Search for something about the novel’s location that is interesting or unique. If it does not work to incorporate it into the story, consider writing an article on your blog. Your readers will probably enjoy learning about it, too.
Thank you so much for stopping by! My theme for my blog this month is food and family and posts for “Historical Nibbles” fits right in. To learn where you can follow Sandra, check out the links below.
Award-winning and Amazon bestselling author Sandra Merville Hart loves to uncover little-known yet fascinating facts about our American history to include in her stories. Her debut Civil War Romance, A Stranger on My Land, was IRCA Finalist 2015. A Rebel in My House, set during the historic Battle of Gettysburg, won the 2018 Silver Illumination Award and second place in 2018 Faith, Hope and Love Readers’ Choice Award. A Musket in My Hands, where two sisters join the Confederate army with the men they love, released November 8, 2018. Her novella, Surprised by Lovein “From the Lake to the River” released in September of 2018. Trail’s End, in “Smitten Novella Collection: The Cowboys” releases in August of 2019.
Callie Jennings reels from her pa’s decision that she must marry his friend, a man older than him. Her heart belongs to her soldier hero, Zach Pearson, but Pa won’t change his mind. Callie has no place to hide. Then her sister, Louisa, proposes a shocking alternative.
Zach still hears his pa’s scornful word—quitter. He’s determined to make something of himself as a soldier. He’ll serve the Confederacy until they win the war. If they win the war.
Callie and Louisa disguise themselves as soldiers and muster into the Confederate army in the fall of 1864. Times are tough and getting tougher for their Confederacy. For Callie, shooting anyone, especially former countrymen, is out of the question—until truth and love and honor come together on the battlefield.
At Thanksgiving dinner, is the turkey the most important part of the meal for you, or is it the sides? Although my husband has roast the juiciest turkey I’ve ever eaten, I have to admit the side dishes are what I crave at Thanksgiving, which, by the way, my husband also does a fabulous job with. Being a bread-a–vore, as my oldest says, I love stuffing. I have to watch my intake of it so I don’t beach myself. My sister bakes a drool-worthy broccoli casserole. I never liked cranberry sauce until my husband made it from scratch, and it’s so good, I eat the leftovers for breakfast.
Food, like music, is a universal language. Everyone, and every living thing, must ingest some kind of food to survive. Regardless of genre, all writers can us food as writing inspiration.
Historical fiction has the difficult job of making readers understand a time that they know little or nothing about. Writing about the food of a time period is one way to help readers connect with those distant eras. Because her novels are set during the American Civil War, my friend Sandra Merville Hart tests early American recipes on her website “Historical Nibbles”. Describing food in a historical story tells a lot about a character’s class, ethnicity, and wealth. The lack of food is also a critical component in many historical periods. In Sandra’s latest novel, A Musket in My Hand, one of the reasons two sisters disguise themselves as men and join the Confederate army is because Union troops keep raiding their farm for food, and they are barely surviving.
In many ways, speculative fiction is similar to historical fiction because other genres introduce readers to unfamiliar worlds. Some worlds in speculative fiction are so alien that writing about the food the characters eat makes it seem not so strange after all. In Watership Down, wild rabbits in England try to survive while establishing a new warren. Food is always on their mind, and writing about how they think of food draws readers into their world.
So much of romance centers around food — couples get to know each other going out to dinner, grabbing a cup of coffee, planning a meal where they will meet each other’s families. Liking the same food can be a symbol for showing how well a couple is matched. And if they have very different tastes in food, that can be a symbol that all is not well in their relationship. How they interact through a meal can be a comment on the relationship. In the classic movie Citizen Kane, we watch the disintegration of Charles Foster Kane’s marriage during a montage of breakfast scenes. When they are first married, he and his wife sit right beside each other, chattering away. As the years pass, they sit further and further apart until they sit at opposite ends and eat in silence.
Since I write crime, I have first-hand experience with working food into my narrative. A good way to get characters to discuss a problem, and impart information to the reader, is to have them sit down to a meal. It’s a natural way to slow down the pace and have a thoughtful conversation. Analyzing clues during a running gun battle just doesn’t work.
In any genre, a character’s food likes and hates adds a layer of believability or a quirk, like I wrote about in this post. In the Nero Wolfe mysteries, Nero Wolfe’s gourmet tastes are one of the reason he’s a private detective. He charges exorbitant fees to feed his exorbitant appetite.
As I look over my YA Christian crime novel, I realize food is an essential part of my storytelling. My characters eat pepperoni rolls, which were invented in West Virginia, the setting of my novel. My main character Junior is often hungry, showing the poverty his family lives in. When he thinks a group of thugs has torn up the family’s garden, Junior is worried about how to feed his family. Two discussions of serious events take place during meals.
Have your ever read a cookbook just for the stories in it? Until I married, cookbooks were merely collections of recipes. But then I began buying cookbooks for my mother-in-law, a fabulous cook, as gifts, and my husband told me she liked to read ones that had a lot of descriptions or opinions or stories in them.
“For a couple years I spent Thanksgiving Day at The New York Times, where I once was restaurant critic and now work as national editor, answering panicked questions from readers. I was a one-man Thanksgiving help line.”
With a wealth of stories, expertise, and very strong opinions, this book is a collection of what he had learned.
I love Mr. Sifton’s style of writing, and his insistence that there is a right way to cook Thanksgiving — no marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, please — and anyone can do it if you plan ahead and work at it. He doesn’t believe in shortcuts. In an age when most people are trying to find hacks for shortening almost any task, it’s refreshing to find someone who refuses to take that route. Yes, Thanksgiving is a lot of work, and that is what’s makes it special. If we keep coming up with ways to make it easier, eventually, we won’t bother celebrating it at all.
I haven’t tried the recipes in the book, but they cover everything from how to tackle the turkey to dessert with additional advice on place settings and clean up. What I can recommend are the stories. Such as the first Thanksgiving the author “took a significant part in cooking … when I was 20” and his first attempt at frying a turkey with many wonderful descriptions and opinions sprinkled throughout.
Do you have a favorite cookbook because of the stories as well as the recipes?