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.


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.


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


…And Things That Go Bump in the Night

Francesca and Elaine talk about their take on Hallowe’en!

Francesca: From ghoulies and ghosties, And long-leggedy beasties, And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!


Apple Bobbing

Who remembers that poem/prayer from long ago? As a child we’d recite it every Hallowe’en. At my infants school we did apple bobbing in the hall. Apart from this, we barely marked the occasion at all.


Reluctantly celebrating Hallowe’en. Yes, the cat is me!

How different it is nowadays. I can’t believe the amount of ‘stuff’ there is to buy for Hallowe’en. ‘Stuff’ is my polite word for ‘tut’ (as in ‘rubbish’). It’s an odd kind of tradition to encourage children to honour, a bit of a throwback and an amalgam of several festivals from different traditions. I did mostly avoid it when my own brood were young – even at the risk of being called a spoilsport. The one time it was celebrated in my house was down to my mother-in-law, who decided to buy some ‘tut’, I mean Hallowe’eeny bits, for the kids.


Mum didn’t just make up good ghost stories, she loved ghostly practical jokes too!

Having said all that, the occasion is rather a gift for writers. My mother was particularly adroit at telling her own made up ghost stories, although to be honest, they frightened the life out of me – which is maybe why I avoided Hallowe’en with my own children.

I’ve written only a few ghost stories in my time but I do enjoy tapping into the darker side of fiction now and again. You really can go anywhere with it, from a benign presence in a house to a full-on terror fest. Of course you don’t need to wait until Hallowe’en to write one but those nights rapidly drawing in certainly create a better atmosphere for them than the long summer days.



Pumpkins carved by my family

Pumpkins carved by my family

Elaine: It’s that time of year again when old people are afraid to open their front doors and children and adults dress up as all things evil. I have never celebrated Hallowe’en and my children weren’t encouraged to either. I was more of a Guy Fawkes child, although you no longer see any homemade guys outside shops. There is something about Hallowe’en that does scare me a little, which is probably why I have only written one short story about this time of year. However, I do know from family and friends that I am in the minority.

I have watched enough films and programmes where this time of year has been part of it. You may have guessed I don’t watch scary films either, but I always thought the house decorations and the people dressing up was just part of the film. However, on my trip to Boston I discovered that is not so.

Faneuil Market Place, Boston, New England

Faneuil Market Place, Boston, New England

Early one morning, my husband and I visited Faneuil Hall Market Place, in Boston, New England, which is a beautiful market with historical buildings around it. On our way we passed dogs wearing red capes and horns and other such costumes, which made us smile, as they were being lead by their owners in similar outfits. I didn’t really think anything of it; I truly thought these people were a little eccentric, mainly because they were dressed similarly to their dogs. That was until we stopped to eat in the food court, where everyone shared long, wooden tables. My face must have looked a picture as we sat with an elderly witch, with all the accessories and her face painted, as well as a skeleton, a red horned and tailed devil, and a werewolf. I looked around to discover we were very underdressed and probably the only people in the market, at that time, not in fancy dress. There was a party atmosphere with everyone laughing, joking and admiring each other’s costumes.

If, before travelling to America, I had given it more thought I would have realised that the Salem Witch Trials had taken place just over the water.


Link: The History of Hallowe’en

We Were Just Chatting…

Francesca and I were chatting about the hobbies we’ve had in the past and present and it was only when I looked back that I realised mine were all solitary activities. knitting-bak

I used to make my own clothes, in the days before the low priced high street retailers. Choosing crocheting over knitting; I could never knit quickly enough although my mother was able to knit at lightning speed.

546px-CrosswordUK.svgAll word games have always given me immense pleasure. I can remember as a child writing the word Constantinople on a piece of paper and seeing how many words I could make out of it. The words had to be at least four letters long.

Reading was always the greatest pleasure of all. It was not unusual for me to get caught reading under the blankets with a torch when I should have been asleep. My mother worried about how much reading I did, instead of being out in the fresh air playing but that was never for me, and strangely enough it still isn’t.

Nowadays, while I still love to read, all my free time is spent with either my family or writing. report_writingWhile I love writing, I also hate it at the same time, which sounds a little strange. It makes me wonder why I persist with it. The answer is simple, I can’t help myself, it’s like a drug with the highs and the frustrating lows.

You would think from that list that I was a lonely child/adult and at times you would be correct but for best part, I think I’m quite self-sufficient. Maybe it comes from being born into a military family and moving around every couple of years.

What do you think Francesca, do you like your own company or are your hobbies more group based?

Thank you, Elaine, for sharing that. I’d say that some of my hobbies are solitary, others communal.

Writing is my very oldest hobby. Ten years ago I started participating on a Lord of the Rings forum, and writing fanfic for it. I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of the things, along with finding a creative writing class, that got me back into writing, and eventually submitting.

HobbiesOf my other hobbies, Italian has been dominant. I wasn’t raised bilingually, but joined a class as an adult. I did that for well over twenty years, gaining a GCSE and an A level. I still meet up with those friends and we have cultural trips out – often with an Italian connection.

The ‘piano badly’ is an instrument I play expertly! I had lessons as a child and have owned a piano most of my life. My father was a proficient violinist, guitarist and mandolin player. That musical gene has made my children much better musicians than me. Between them they play piano, guitar, bass, mandolin, flute, saxophone and drums. The girls are ten times better on the piano than me, and they’ve never had lessons. But tickling the ivories is a good way to relax. I have also been known to clear a room with my recorder!family tree

I took up knitting again recently and have been teaching myself crochet. I like quick patterns these days, so it’s big needles and chunky wool for me. I used to sew, in fact, I made my wedding dress and a Christening gown. I would not recommend it!

I also dabble with genealogy, that is to say, I can spend hours on end on I find the social history side of it absolutely fascinating.

Music is the only one of my interests I’ve never covered in a story or novel. I’ll have to put that right some time.

The Devil is in the Detail

Francesca Burgess is happily distracted by research

I first discovered a love for research during my history degree, many moons ago, when given the opportunity to use primary sources as well as secondary. Trawling through the census, parish records and tithe maps almost tempted me to become an archivist. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I’d one day use such research to add authenticity and character to my stories.

Kyle to Portree signOther of my colleagues have extolled the virtues of the brilliant Google Street View. I can’t overstate the usefulness of this. I once took myself on a ‘drive’ around the Isle of Skye, which was exactly what my character was doing. She needed to stop in the middle of nowhere, park and walk up a hill. Although away from the road, a close aerial view showed me where the path went. There are also photos posted by viewers: very handy for seeing things not visible from the road.

Worthing info boardEven if you do visit a place, and I’ve visited Skye on a number of occasions, Street View is handy for reacquainting oneself with an area. My recently finished novel is set in a place based on Worthing, where I lived as a tot. I wanted to check whether I could see the sea standing in the middle of a certain road. You might think, what difference does it make if it’s only based on Worthing? Consistency. I don’t want a character to be able to see it in one scene, and then not in another. Using a real place (though changing it to suit me!) works for me in that way.

A few years back I became hooked on I can spend (waste!) hours on it, seeking out my ancestors, but it’s also wonderful for research. A short story I wrote, The Demon Drink is set in a Welsh mining village in 1908. I based it on the village my mother was born in. To get a flavour of it from the time, I explored the 1911 census, finding out something Abertysswgof the people who lived there (I even found my great grandparents!), the kind of trades apart from mining. It gave me a real insight into the community. There were even two Russians, who I included in the story, surely a bit of a curiosity in 1908 Wales.

Then there are the purely practical pieces of research, the ones to do with everyday occurrences. I’m talking about dates, sunrise and sunset, the moon, and, because I’ve set most of my novels by the sea, tides. It’s no good saying it’s Easter Day on the one hand, then declaring that the sun was still up at 20.30. I don’t want to inadvertently have a full moon one evening, then state it’s a crescent the next day. I always have to hand a printed calendar for the year/s. On it I mark public holidays, characters’ birthdays and other significant dates for my novel. Along with that, I have websites open to check the sun, moon and tides.

Be sure if you get it wrong, you’ll be caught out by somebody. They say the devil is in the detail, and it’s certainly true of fiction. Just don’t get too distracted by it!

Useful websites:




Be professional from day one!

Elaine Everest reflects on the publishing world and the writers who one day hope to be part of this wonderful profession.

For the past ten years part of my week has been taken up teaching creative writing classes. I was employed by Kent Adult Education Services before setting up The Write Place creative writing school in 2009. From beginners through to novel writers most students have the dream of becoming published – many wishing to make it their occupation. I’ve been privileged to see quite a few students sell short stories, articles as well as non-fiction books and recently novels. Something I’ve noticed without fail is that those who succeed have been professional from day one. They’ve treated their writing as a job, studying the markets and reading about agents and publishers so they know about the movers and shakers in our world and who is looking for new talent long before they are ready to submit.

Amongst a sector of wannabe writers there seems to be a certain arrogance. The moment these people swagger into my classroom (yes, women can swagger as well as men) my radar picks them up. Here we go, Elaine, you are in for an interesting evening. These days I find their antics funny. Hey, if they want to waste their time by disbelieving advice on how to become published who am I to complain. They’ve paid me a fee! However, it saddens me that arrogance stops a good writer from succeeding – sometimes they even influence a good student and they too give up on their writing. One such chap demanded to be in my novel class even though he had never really put pen to paper. Each week he had some grand idea for an earth shattering plot along with an excuse as to why he’d not written a word. Come read back night and he would spew forth his advice to fellow students on where they were going wrong. Fortunately no one listened, he was not allowed to hog the limelight and he soon faded away.


Every writer’s dream is to see their book at the London Book Fair.

Another lovely man (can you see a pattern here?) would not listen to me and insisted on heading to London to reclaim his tome when an agent had held onto it for one month. However much I explained about waiting a while longer –especially as the agent had requested sight of the full novel – he was adamant that one month was long enough. The agent later told me that she had tried her utmost to speak to him and explain she was already reading the book and loved what she’d seen but this man took his heap of paper and headed for home. To my knowledge he was never published.

Being professional is also about presenting work in a reasonable way, regardless of whether it is sent by email or post. A polite letter, clean paper and a front sheet set out neatly will mean the work is a pleasure to read. I’ve worked at administrating writing competitions and believe me, many well published writers cannot layout a front sheet. It’s no different to writing a letter – perhaps they haven’t written many of those either?

Moving on to the publishers themselves. The least I expect from them is an acknowledgement of my work and within a decent length of time. I know of short story magazines where the editor continually allows submissions to be held for over one year and only then rejecting in vast numbers. Another publication, overseas this time, does not reject but simply lets submissions fall off the cliff at the end of six months and suggests we resubmit. I’m not a lemming and I will not be following other writers over that steep cliff. Magazine publishers need to realise that writers submit because it is their job, they need to pay the mortgage or eat sometimes!

My final word is for the unprofessional ebook publisher who is incapable of responding to a submission after raving how my book was perfect for the new ebook section of the mega company she works for. The woman gushed and raved and insisted that I send the book to her. One year on (and counting) since that industry one2one she has yet to reply – even with a rejection. She also ignored my polite enquiries, as did her assistant when she was made aware that I, and many fellow authors, had been ignored. Perhaps if I was unprofessional I would name and shame. Catch me on a bad day and you may just know the name of this publisher…


A Touchy Subject

Francesca Capaldi Burgess talks about using the sense of touch in fiction.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.   
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!”                                                                                                    
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet                                                                                                                    

Touch isn’t always the easiest of the senses to deal with when writing fiction. If a point of view character is standing in a kitchen (as mine often seem to be), there’s a limit to the number of times their tea can be described as too hot, or the unit they’re leaning up against as hard. The latter is so obvious would you even mention it?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

Three out of the four novels I’ve written are set by the sea. The seaside has a lot of scope for the sense of touch. Is the wind biting, balmy, refreshing? Is the sun blistering or gently warm? The sand can be dry and silky, wet and grainy, irritating the toes. Pebbles of various sizes cause different sensations on the feet. Is the water nippy, chilly or so bitterly cold it makes the character’s teeth chatter? (My beaches are always in the UK!)

If we’re not too careful, all this potential can lead to touch overload: ‘The wind cut through her, making her shiver as she stepped onto the beach. The solid cobbles she encountered first were hard underfoot. The sharp pebbles stabbed at her feet, sending little pinpricks of pain into her skin. When she reached the wet sand she dug her feet into its cloying stickiness. She flung herself into the icy water.’ You get the idea. Besides which, if I was writing this scene I would include the other senses too.

All the novels I’ve written so far have been romances, a genre which is enhanced with the sense of touch. Back in our kitchen scene, if our heroine is feeling the hard edge of the unit because she’s being jammed up against it in a passionate embrace by our hero, that might be acceptable. Skin, hair and lips all beg to be touched, whether they’re rough, warm, moist or silky. Then there are other parts of the anatomy for those who write more intimate scenes.

spidergram 2Whether we’re talking beaches, a couple making out, a child running through a wood or trudging to work on a rainy day, the problem is finding the words which really bring the scenes we’re working on to life. I deal with this in a number of ways. Often I’ll brainstorm the scene with a spider diagram, trying to put myself in that situation. There’ll be other senses apart from touch on there, but I get a lot of ideas that way. Sometimes I’ll use music or a sounds CD to help. Even better still is if I can be in that place, say the beach or a wood. If I’m really stuck to find a different way to describe something, there’s always my trusty Collins Thesaurus.

I’m off to Wales tomorrow, to the verdant undulations of Abergavenny. I shall lie on a hill in the sun and close my eyes to see what it feels like. All in the name of work, of course.


As I mentioned earlier, touch isn’t always the easiest sense to deal with, but it’s not the hardest either. Join us on the 21st May for Elaine Roberts’ blog post on ‘Smell’.