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

 

It’s Only Words, Isn’t It?

As the new term gets started, Elaine and Francesca think about their writing year ahead.

September and the new school year is upon us. For some it is a momentous occasion, with children going into the next level of education. Whether their son/daughter has gone from nursery to reception or from sixth form to university, or anything in between, many tears have flowed.

Just as it’s a new beginning for the children/grandchildren, so it is for the writers amongst us. It’s a challenge, getting back into the swing of sitting still long enough to write some words, after the hustle and bustle of the summer holidays.

IMG_0942

Elaine’s novel planning whiteboard

Elaine: Earlier this month I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference and a Woman’s Weekly workshop on historical writing. Although they were obviously very different, both were a first for me. I gained something from both of them but what astounded me more is that I know more than I realised; it is clearly about putting that knowledge into practice.

My Victorian Saga is technically finished and out trying to get snapped up, although I am sure changes will need to be made. While I am waiting for those decisions, I am planning my next novel. That means I am up to my neck in research, learning some fascinating facts that I hope I can slip into my novel. It’s pretty safe to say there have been times when I thought my head would explode.

I have paper and Post It Notes everywhere. Luckily for me, I have an understanding husband because while I have an office, I have also commandeered the dining table as well!

Francesca: It always seems that I start new novels in September, as if studying for a new course. I guess this is because of sending novels off to the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme several summers in a row.

Islwyn Morgan, late 1930s.

Francesca’s historical idea came from an incident in her grandfather Islwyn’s family.

Like Elaine, I attended the Woman’s Weekly workshop on historical fiction. Although I tend to write contemporary novels, and have just started a new one, I’ve had an idea for an historical bubbling away for some time that the workshop helped me develop. So which to continue with? 

Because I did a history degree back in the dim distant past, several people have asked me why I don’t pursue that genre of novel. I have written several historical short stories and a serial, but I always seem to come up with masses of ideas for contemporary novels. It would be interesting to proceed with the historical, though there’s a danger I’ll get carried away with the research, for which I’ve acquired several books!

My other goal is to return to short stories. In the past I’ve had sixty-odd ‘out theres’ sent to various magazines, but I’ve sadly neglected them in favour of novels recently. And I’d like to write another serial. 

Time to just get on with it, because as Bruce Lee once apparently observed, ‘If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.’ Good luck with your own ‘new term’. 

Do you have plans for the new school year or are you just enjoying the peace and quiet?

More Tea Vicar? What We Include Consciously and Subconsciously

Elaine and Francesca consider those things that always crop up automatically in their writing. And a few things they’re not so good at including when they should.

Elaine: When Francesca asked me what I automatically include in my short stories and novels, I have to say my mind went totally blank.

Swallow Falls In North Wales

Swallow Falls In North Wales

So the analysing of my writing started. I can tell you I don’t automatically add in the five senses. I am getting better at adding them, but it doesn’t happen automatically. Neither does adding in the weather or description. I love being near water so you would be forgiven if you thought that would be what I automatically included, but alas, that isn’t so. My settings are always urban, mainly cities with not a river or coastline in sight.

The more I think about this, the more I’m beginning to wonder why I write, or if I am actually a good writer. Thankfully, I have had over a dozen short stories published in women’s magazines to confirm I’m not too bad.

Through all this analysis, what has shocked me is that I tend to write about suppressed women striving for control of their destiny. They may have low self esteem or be running away from a situation, but they will always be thrown back into it.

My novel, Forgotten Love, is a modern romance about a married woman, a parent who wants to return to education to achieve some qualifications, but her family doesn’t take her seriously.

Victorian Saga Family Tree

Victorian Saga Family Tree

In the Victorian saga I am currently writing, my main character, Emily, is striving to escape an arranged marriage; she wants to marry for love, which is against the family wishes.

Both of these stories are about family relationships, very different stories dealing with various aspects love.

So what do I automatically include in my writing? Love and romance.

@RobertsElaine11

Francesca: I posed the question, What do you include in your novel without thinking? when Elaine and I were pondering a subject for our joint blog this week. I’ve come at it from a slightly different angle and thought of specific repetitive plot and setting points.

More Tea Vicar?

More Tea Vicar?

For a start, I often have a fight in my novels (as well as with them!). Three out of the five include ‘fisticuffs’. Even the other two have heated arguments. Better on paper than in reality, I suppose. The first three novels also include hospital scenes (two of them as a result of the aforementioned fights). Since realising this, I’ve made sure the two recent novels comprise neither violence nor hospitals. Believe it or not, they do all contain love and romance too!

The main female characters in the first three novels possess quirky/off the wall/irritating best friends who they fall out with somewhere along the way. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that I disowned my ‘oldest bestest friend’ not long before I wrote the first novel, due to some very unpleasant and frankly unfriendly behaviour from her. The heroines in novels four and five seem to have got over it!

Morglas Settings

Exploring all possible settings

Then there are the ubiquitous kitchen scenes that appear in almost all my novels – and a good few of my short stories too. I know from writing friends that I’m not the only person with this problem. Along with these scenes go the inevitable and plentiful cups of tea and coffee. A recent critique of one of my books suggested I might want to get out of the kitchen a bit and re-set some of the scenes elsewhere. To that end I’ve made a list of all the settings in the book, along with other possible ones. Hopefully that will give me ideas when I do the re-write.

I’ve done the same with the WIP, because, unlike Elaine, I do set all my novels near water.  I don’t want to fall into a similar ‘overused setting’ trap as I’m already aware that the beach is featuring a little too often in the current novel, and possibly the last one too. 

Okay, the scene where I sit in my study and write this blog post is done. Time to head to the kitchen for a cup of tea, methinks…

@FCapaldiBurgess

What always crops up in your novels or short stories?

Elaine Plans & Searches

Last week our post on new beginnings got me thinking about my new novel and how I’m moving away from what I know.

My first two novels didn’t need extensive researching, I wrote about things I knew about.Victorian My last one required research because a publisher asked my to change the location to a country I knew nothing about. My current work in progress is on a whole new level for me.

I have always done chapter breakdowns for my novels but this time I have done it for three stand-alone projects. It is planned down to the minutest detail to ensure I don’t forget some of the threads to the story.

Last Saturday I dragged my husband to an archive centre in London, despite the trains and underground making it as difficult as possible with the Easter engineering works. Thankfully, the DLR helped to bridge the gap. While we were on the train, a couple of young lads were discussing football at length and how they were going to get to the game that day. I won’t tell you who they were going to support but it was a London team, so that should narrow it down a little, if you’re interested. They were so busy talking, they nearly missed their stop but Super Gran (that’s me) came to the rescue and told them they were at their stop. I was rewarded with thanks, some grateful smiles, and a wave when they got off the train. It made my day. I did wonder afterwards whether they would refer to me as “some old girl” when they discussed it later.

Anyway, I digress, back to the archive centre. I did something that day that I’ve alwaysNewspaper Print shied away from. I admitted to the assistant that I was researching the Victorian era because I was writing a novel. She was very helpful and knowledgeable. She gave me a quick reminder on how to view microfiche. It needs to be said that the more tired I became, the worse my navigating got. I came home with newspaper print outs, old maps, a couple of books and a husband with a very bad headache.

To be serious for a moment, my research has given me a totally different view on the authors that write historical sagas. We spent nearly four hours in there and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The old maps have shown me roads and properties that don’t exist now, so that has Old Mapsadded a new dimension to my writing. When I got home, the maps were laid out all over the floor and I highlighted different roads on them. I had lists of traders at the time, which adds authenticity to my writing. I spent ages trying to make decisions over which roads to use. Google Earth helped me to look at the properties as they are now, which in turn helped to give an idea of when they were built.

I started off not wanting to do the research and the level of planning that I am subjecting myself to. All I wanted to do was write, but I am shocked to say I have enjoyed it. My writing is easier because of it. The words flow more easily. It’s all part of learning my trade. I am serving my apprenticeship and, hopefully, I’ve just passed the research and planning module.

@RobertsElaine11