Food, Glorious Food

Elaine and Francesca on researching food and how they use it in their writing.

Victorian China

Victorian China

Elaine: If we write short stories or novels, historical or modern, regardless of genre, we should always include food and of course plenty of cups of tea. When writing about a character eating, the author is giving the reader information about them. What food they eat could reveal their social standing in society. How they eat it could depict not only their social standing, but also when they last had a meal, and of course their manners. Food is often used in romantic and sex scenes; that was nicely depicted in the Disney film, Lady and The Tramp when they had a spaghetti dinner. What and how we eat has changed over the years and therefore, the meal could indicate the time the novel is set in.

I remember attending the opening of the first McDonalds in Britain, I believe it was 1972. The group I was with were totally shocked that we had to eat with our fingers and we decided there and then that it would never take off. Obviously, we couldn’t have been more wrong. This demonstrates the importance of making sure the food facts are correct because it is easy to get caught out.

Mrs Beaton's Cookery Book

Mrs Beaton’s Cookery Book

I am writing a first draft of a Victorian Saga and there is a lot of information about everything on the Internet; sometimes I wonder how authors managed twenty years ago. However, I purchased a Mrs Beaton’s Cookery Book, which is wonderful. It is more than a cook book. There are pages and pages of etiquette of that time, even what to do if the Queen pays you a visit.

@RobertsElaine11

Francesca: Looking through my fiction I find that food features large – quite apart from those endless cups of tea/coffee imbibed in the kitchen!

Competitions often have a food theme to comply with. I have a couple of stories in this category that have enjoyed comp success. Far From Home, set in 1915, features an Italian called Margherita who is in England without many of the ingredients normally available to her. She has to use lard instead of olive oil, for instance. Through research I also discovered that garlic wasn’t often grown and was viewed with suspicion! Food is the means by which she gets to know a handsome Canadian soldier.

A table of characters ready for a romance, a family bust up or a little mischief?

A dinner table full of characters: are they ready for romance, a family bust up or a little mischief?

Insatiable included the themes of gluttony, lust and greed (the general theme of the comp was the Seven Deadly Sins, so I thought I’d go for a few!) Cue lots of food metaphors in the lustful parts! More research, this time into 1950s food, was required, bearing in mind there was still some rationing in the early years.

But I don’t seem to need a set theme to employ food in my plots. Goat’s Head Soup is about Miranda who holds a dinner party for her husband’s condescending friends. They get their comeuppance when Miranda serves up something a little unconventional.

Then there is Thinking Outside the Cakebox (about a cupcake shop), Foolproof (where the pensioner next door saves her neighbour’s dinner party) and An Alternative Christmas  (where the local hippies save Christmas for their neighbours after a power cut because they have an Aga!).

The cafe above which I was born in the late '50s.

The cafe where I was born, in the late ’50s.

Two of the novels I’ve written are set in cafés. Not surprising since I was born in one. They are a great basis for all sorts of shenanigans. In one of these novels, and in a couple of my others, the main protagonists indulge in dinners a deux – not to be underestimated for their romantic potential.

Yes, food is certainly very handy when it comes to time and place setting, for the senses, for a family bust up, a romance or a little mischief. It’s something we can all relate to.

@FCapaldiBurgess

You can read Far From Home  in the anthology 7 Food Stories from Rome

 

Character Assassination

Francesca considers the tricky problem of using real people in fiction

In novel class this week, someone brought up the subject of using people we know in our novels. One of the students had received several requests from people to be included in her latest novel, real names and all. An in-depth discussion on the matter ensued. Our tutor (novelist Elaine Everest) pointed out that even if the person concerned gives you permission to use them as a character, DON’T. At some later date they may decide they hate your portrayal of them and sue. Or, if they unfortunately die, their family might sue instead.

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

It’s possible to get round this by changing their names of course.  I believe it’s something writers do all the time in any case. I know I do. Sometimes I’ve chosen the person concerned because they are interesting or their story is fascinating. Sometimes it’s that I have that person in mind as I’m creating a character, because they’re similar. Or bits of different people end up in one character.

My own children have come in very handy, particularly when they were younger and I wanted to create a teenager for a short story (don’t think they’ll sue!) My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and occasionally past friends (or ‘friends’) and acquaintances have all played their part in my make-believe world. Many are long dead or well in the past but I’ve still changed their names. Currently I’m writing something which is based, albeit loosely, on when my parents met.

The original 'Cosmo' who is actually in a 'woo woo'!

The original ‘Cosmo’ who is actually in a ‘woo woo’!

Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn. Luca was the inspiration for little ‘Cosmo’ who liked his ‘woo woos’ in a long storyI nearly had published recently (sadly the anthology didn’t go ahead). His distinctive phrases and facial expressions are easily recognisable in the text. He is cute in the role, so I’m quite happy to tell you it’s him, though I was at pains to point out to my daughter that Cosmo’s mum isn’t her!

The examples I’ve used so far have been, for the most part, nice characters. But what about when we turn a person into someone who isn’t very nice, or even a villain, even though it may not be much of a leap?  When I’ve done this it hasn’t been about revenge, (well, maybe a teensy weensy bit) but more because they’d simply make a darned good ‘baddy’. I always find myself looking for reasons why they’re like this, a background that has informed their present, which isn’t necessarily the reality. A lonely. impoverished or abusive childhood? Let down by a lover? Bullied at school? We should do this with all our main characters of course, but it’s particularly poignant with the rogues. They’re often much more fun to play with than the more virtuous characters.

The one thing I would never do is give the ‘bad’ character the real name of someone I knew, however tempting that might be. There’s a good reason why works of fiction start with a disclaimer about the characters in the book being fictitious. We’d all do well to take heed of Elaine’s advice: DON’T!

@FCapaldiBurgess

You can read more about my adventures as a grandmother on my occasional Nonna Blog