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