Monday, July 28, 2014

Five ways to use food as a tool in fiction


I recently had a reader who told me she felt the need to recreate one of the recipes I described in my book. She said it deepened her experience as she read. The funny thing is, the reader wasn't talking about one of my cookbooks--she was referring to a tool that I love to use when writing fiction. Food in fiction can be used to draw your reader into the story.

Little Women
Here are five ways to use food as a tool in fiction:

1. Use food to create a sense of place or invoke a certain response from your reader.

Let's say that you are writing a scene showing a family at Christmastime, sitting around the fire, and sharing time together. To help your reader really feel that they are there, describe the yeasty smell of cinnamon rolls as they come from the oven, or the taste of wassail as it slips down your character's throat. Your reader will insert their own positive experiences with cinnamon rolls and sweet drinks by the fire, and be drawn into the scene.

2. A taste or smell can help connect a later scene to an earlier one.

If you want readers to recall parts of an earlier scene that is critical to bringing later loose ends together, use a food or a smell to connect the two. For instance, in Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, the peculiar smells of lavender and lemons are mentioned in a garden early in the book, and then, when the character has a vision of an earlier time, the smell of lavender and lemons is mentioned again, pulling the two scenes together in the reader's remembrance and helping them make connections that the authors did not have to spell out. 

3. Mealtimes are a great way to create a crucible that brings conflict to the fore.

Chocolate Frogs from Harry Potter
We all know that conflict drives the story forward. What better way to introduce conflicts than to sit all of your characters down at a meal and watch them duke it out? Think of Downton Abbey. You know as soon as you see them sit down for their fancy meal that the crap is going to hit the fan! And we are rubbing our hands in anticipation. Bring your characters together over dinner to form a crucible--a way to push characters into the same space and make them bring up the conflicts that are bugging them. 

4. Food can spark the reader's imagination.

We all love to eat, and food can bring wonder to the world your characters live in. Think of Willy Wonka with his color-changing gum, and Harry Potter with chocolate frogs and puking pastilles. One of my favorite foods in fiction are the Lumba Berry Pies in In A World Without Heroes (Beyonder #1), by Jason Mull. The character encounters lumba berry pie--a delicacy that is so addicting that the diner will never want to eat anything again. The only problem is, lumba berries have no nutritional value and causes the addicted eater to starve to death.
Lumba Berry Pies from A World Without Heroes

5. Foods and their preparation can be used as a metaphor for what the character is going through emotionally.

Having your character eat an ice cream or bake something from scratch can mirror what is going on emotionally in the character's life. In one of my books, a character burns the batch of cookies that she makes after having a disastrous date. The ruined cookies reflect the emotional state of the character and it pushes her over the edge (as an added tool, I used the burned cookies to foreshadow a later event involving a burning building).

The next time you want to introduce a setting, fuel the reader's imagination, or bring characters together to create a conflict, search your recipe box--you may find the answer to your plot holes in your next meal.

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Authors-have you ever used food as a device in your writing?


Readers-What's the most memorable dinner scene or food you've ever read about?

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