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.
The Truth and Other Strangers
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.
How would you use food as writing inspiration?