Tips and Tricks of Writing
The extensive collection of articles 4 writing Genre fiction
Writing about food in your genre work.
Often when world-building it's easy to get caught up in the big things. The political systems or magic systems of the world, the advanced technology, or the alternative timelines, but an aspect of world-building that often gets left behind is food.
Food is something defined by environment. The French are known for their bread and pastries. The Italians for their pasta. The German's for their beer. The English for their Tea. Each country has its own staples based on the environment and culture developed over time.
Yet when reading a fantasy or Sci-Fi not much is mentioned in the way of food. Galas are held, banquets and celebrations, camping trips, extravagant dinners, famines, extra-terrestrial planets, and yet no one mentions what is being served? What is being searched for outside of the vague idea of 'food.' Protagonists stealing scraps in order to survive, crossing deserts, and fighting in woods over fires roasting... something. Some kind [insert bland meat here].
The lost potential is heartbreaking.
In a world where what we eat tells so much about our lifestyle and culture, what could we build in a world we've completely made up?
Take 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' as a wonderful example of using food as a way to build a character up. Jacob is a war veteran of World War I [known as the Great War during this time period]. He's returned from the war to work in a factory and dreams of owning his own Bakery. The beautiful woman he finds himself attracted to further draws his attention with her own cooking using magic. They connect. When the group travels to a bar there is a culture shock for Jacob who experiences 'Giggly Water'- an alcoholic beverage that's been laced with magic.
Not only is food used as a form of connection between Jacob and Queenie, but it's also used as Jacob's reason for being there. His want to open up his bakery led him to be inside the bank during Newt's own visit to retrieve his magical wards. At the end of the adventure, Jacob is given the opportunity to open his bakery, and despite losing his magical memories the man is able to use the last vestiges of his experiences to influence the food he creates in his bakery to delightful ends.
This is a perfect and extreme example of how food can be used to expand where a person comes from and how their experiences can affect them.
'Heartless' by Mellissa Meyers is a decent example of a fun use of food to build character. Her baking is what makes her an attractive candidate for Queen by the foolish young King. The confections she makes are inventive and fit right into 'Wonderland.'
The central issue, which extends to the entire plot of 'Heartless,' is that this aspect of our protagonist is dropped midway through the book. Unlike Jacobs's character, Catherine's baking abilities don't tie into her character plot in any way and the personality traits she exhibits through her baking seemingly disappear as the story progresses. Where Jacob's excitement for baking is seen in his curiosity and excitement at seeing magic for the first time and all the things Newt introduces, Catherine's inventiveness and passion does not extend past baking treats. Instead, once she falls in love, the romantic relationship is what propels the story forward. The cleverness of Catherine does not see the light of day again past the initial introduction.
In this sense, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a successful way to use food as a way to build character and culture. Heartless is not. A negative for sure, even though I quite enjoyed the book and recommend it for any fan of Alice in Wonderland.
Hunger Games, unlike the two examples above, uses food to create negative connotations for the storyline. As the name suggests, the dystopian YA series uses the poverty disparity between districts to successfully create conflict within and outside of the Hunger Games survival competitions. Winners of the competition earn resources for their districts and this brutal means of allocating supplies means a great many, such as our protagonist Katniss, go hungry for extended periods of time. When the two travel to 'richer' districts, they witness an abundance of food, so much that individuals will vomit up excess in order to consume more.
These three examples lead to the most important bit to take away from this article: Tips on how you can add food into your world-building and character development.
1) Taste- this seems like an odd and obvious one, but is often the element of food most often forgotten. As one of the five senses, it is a primary factor in how to bring your reader into the story itself. Remembering to describe the taste of something that is perhaps new to your protagonist; maybe you have a coastal kid whose traveling inland for the first time whose being introduced to food grown in the mountains or desert, perhaps you have a rich kid whose being forced to eat in a poor town, or you're writing from the point of view of a foreigner introducing their exotic seasonings to a traveling band of refugees. The possibilities are endless. How your character reacts to the new tastes will deepen the readers' understanding of who they are, it will make a connection, and can be used to both negative and positive effects for future scenes.
2) The fantastic element- there really is no need to stick with the standard bread, butter, and mead in your fantasy novel. There's no reason to stick to 'rations' in your space opera. You are the author, the captain of your ship, and where you steer the boat's passage is entirely up to you. So why not go wild? Why not create food as large as a wagon where the locals come together each night and cut into the plant-based growth? And let's say the locals aren't water or oxygen-based and this plant provides the prime chemicals required by their biology. How would that affect every other aspect of their world? What if the plant has a fire-like acid running through its leafy veins that's the needed chemical? What if that could be extracted and devoured in a more pure sense?
What if the world is entirely predator-based? If there is no such thing as vegetation or herbivores then what implications does this have on the nature of the people that live there?
What if the opposite is true? What if there are no carnivores? Or what if the plants on the planet are carnivores like the venus fly trap?
What if food looks entirely like crystals and baking, cooking, eating is treated as a form of art?
3) Rituals. Most of us don't think 'rituals' when we think about eating. Around the world, we have people who 'fast' or refrain from eating for certain periods of time or certain holidays. We eat certain foods on certain days or during certain seasons. There's a reason why the term 'basic bitch' is reserved for those people who enjoy a pumpkin spice latte during the fall and a peppermint mocha in winter. There's a reason why the 'new years resolution' fails for most and why 'to lose ten pounds' tends to be a recurring theme January 1st each year. Turkey is had twice a year even though it's a meat that's technically available all year long. We carve pumpkins for Halloween and bake cookies during Christmas, we cut watermelon during the heat of summer not just because it's a good treat but because it's tradition. We roast marshmallows at campfires even though many northerners own fireplaces where roasting could be done all year long in the home. We pop popcorn during movies. Hot dogs at baseball games.
Now there's no need to invent an entire history of food rituals for your fantasy world in the world-building process, but making one or two can go a long way in helping to build a culture that feels more real.
The thing to remember is not to go out of your way in order to include them. Think of these tips more like opportunities. Let's say I write down a little note with an idea; the desert people bury fresh berries in a burlap bag in a circle around their city as small dedications to their gods.
I don't have to do anything with that idea right away. I don't have to try to sneak it into a conversation or try to create an event centered around that idea.
No, I just write it down. Then later, maybe my character is lost in the desert. They're dying. When they stumble upon a fresh burlap bag full of berries. Now my character knows that there is a town or city nearby. They know what day of the week or month it is. They know how long it is until sunset because the berries look as if they've just been dropped off in strong heat and are still very fresh.
My character knows to throw up their magical version of a flare to call for help. They know THIS is the time. They know what direction to head.
All because of a random, odd food ritual I wrote down as a side note.
4) Events. This one sort of goes hand in hand with the idea of rituals because of how closely they tie in with holidays. It has a lot of the basic points, but in this tip for writing, I'm going to point out the lack of food when it comes to talking about events in books.
Now, I don't know about most of you, but one of the first things I do, whenever I'm invited to a party or an event, is wonder if I should eat first or if I'm going to be sorely disappointed when I arrive.
Did they open a bag of chips and call it a day? Or did they set out a bunch of platters? Will alcohol be served there and if so am I the poor sod to be slated designated driver for the evening because I don't like to drink? Will there be beverages with these salty treats or am I destined to feel parched the whole time? Did they home make everything or order from a restaurant or pick up from the store? Will it be fancy food I feel guilty about eating? Or finger food no one else is going to touch so I can eat as much as I want? Is it stuff I've eaten before or is it out of my element?
Is everyone going to stand around awkwardly not eating when they are surrounded by food or do people feel comfortable enough that we'll all have a fun time chowing down and talking?
Food sets the atmosphere in a lot of ways and it often strikes me as odd when it's not mentioned at all.
I hosted a get-together recently and severely underestimated how much my guests would eat and spent an unfortunate, long stretch of time trying to make more food for everyone. It left people to make small talk and stand around for an awkward amount of time as I scrambled. Because I wasn't fully prepared, the entire get-together fell apart from the start. Even after I made plenty more, it was clear that some hadn't been able to eat their fill. It made for an awkward, tense at times, event that was supposed to be light-hearted and fun.