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

 

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Retreating to the Seaside

Francesca reflects on the advantages and fun of writing retreats.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Hastings Old Town would make a good setting for a novel.

Do you ever go on writing retreats? I’ve been going on at least one a year since 2010 and I thoroughly recommend them. They’re an enjoyable way to achieve a good number of words, with no household or family day to day incidents to distract you.

That’s not to say that it’s all work, work, work. There’s got to be a balance. It helps to have an agreed format with those you’re on retreat with. In my experience it goes something along these lines:

  • Morning: work till coffee time. Go out for coffee
  • After coffee: work
  • Lunch: Snack lunch provided and shared by attendees
  • Afternoon: Write till around 3.30. Have a cup of tea and a natter.
  • Work till dinner time.
  • After dinner: Watch TV, a film, natter, feedback.
  • Work if you’re a night owl

A lovely old boat in Whitstable which could spark new story ideas

The breaks seem plentiful but are an encouragement. Plenty of mini goals can be set which I always find spurs me on. Having breaks is also an opportunity for feedback.

The proportion of work the participants get done during each period depends on whether they’re a morning, afternoon or evening person. During my retreat in Hastings, my writing buddy, Angela Johnson, achieved more in the mornings, whereas I did more in the afternoons. She also managed to get an early morning walk in most days before even starting! Another writing buddy, Elaine Roberts, is also a morning person, whereas Elaine Everest likes to work later in the day.

A feature of  some retreats I’ve been on is each person cooking an evening meal, which has provided at least four dinners during the week. The other days, particularly the first and last, we’ve eaten out. How much you do that depends on what people want to spend, so retreats can be tailored to a budget. Sharing a house obviously divides renting costs. If you’re prepared to share bedrooms (I’m afraid we never are), it brings the cost down again.

Littlehampton in the winter sun

All but one of the retreats I’ve been on have taken place by the sea –Whitstable, Littlehampton and Hastings – so there is much to inspire a thalassophiliac* like me. Perhaps mountains or woods are more your thing and you prefer to hide yourself away completely. Personally I feel it helps to have shops nearby. The one retreat we did where we were in the middle of nowhere (if you can call being seven miles from Hastings that!), we couldn’t even pop out for milk.

The final feature of all the retreats I’ve attended has been a day out in the middle to somewhere interesting. It’s another chance to recharge those batteries and could even be a chance for a little research.

If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative and you have close family living at a distance, you could always ask to spend a week at theirs. It’s particularly useful if they’re at work during the day and you can get on, while enjoying their company in the evening. It’s not something I’ve done yet but I have thought about it.

To all those on a retreat soon, happy writing – and don’t get snowed in like we nearly did our first year in Whitstable!

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

Whitstable beach in the snow, 2010

* A thalassophiliac is someone who loves the sea!

 @FCapaldiBurgess

 

 

 

 

Never Work with… Children?

Francesca wonders whether the WC Fields quote applies in writing also. Is creating young characters troublesome?

The original ‘Cosmo’.

A couple of years ago, I received a critique for a novel that featured three-year-old twins, Elin and Rhys. The feedback was greatly encouraging, though it did call into question whether my toddlers would speak and act the way they did. The critiques are done anonymously, so I didn’t have an opportunity to say yes, they would, because they’re based heavily on my eldest grandson, Luca, himself three at the time. For that reason I felt confident I’d got them more or less right.

It wasn’t the first, or last, piece of writing where the child characters were inspired by my own progeny. Around the same time I wrote a long short story (if you get what I mean) about a cute three-year-old called Cosmo, who loved ‘woowoos’, ie, emergency vehicles. He was also based on Luca. The story was sadly commissioned for an anthology that never saw the light of day – but I’m not bitter!

It’s not only Luca who gets to hog the limelight. The third short story I had published,  A New Beginning, in The Weekly News back in 2009, featured teenager Peter. It’s no coincidence that Peter is the name of my oldest son. Since then each of my four children have appeared in at least one story, though not always under their own names. Using them as models for characters has been useful though.

To date I’ve written eleven short stories and five novels that feature children or teens. My first two novels were, in fact, Young Adult. The second of those (shortlisted for the Wells Festival of Literature Children’s Competition in 2016) featured several sixteen-year-olds. While none of them were based on my children, I did use them as source material on various aspects of young adult life. There’s nothing funnier than hearing your teenage son on the phone go, ‘Yeah man, sweet, sweet. Sick!’

Peter in his ‘Bluestone’ days.

Peter and my younger son Jack have both been involved in the music scene, one as a musician, the other as a club DJ. This has been useful for research. Peter even made me a CD compilation of club music, to play and refer to while writing a party scene. I can tell you it’s weird hearing a sample of Thomas the Tank Engine in the middle of a drum and bass piece!

With or without your own progeny, there are plenty of other ways to research children and teens. Observe them in cafes and on trains. Children’s and youth magazines are useful. What’s in with the little kids these days? What are teens wearing, listening to, watching? Get a TV guide and see what programmes are popular. Watch a bit of BBC 3.

Dear Diary…

It also helps if you have a good memory – and a diary. I’ve long been in possession of a journal written in the summer 1971, by half-a-dozen of us who worked at my dad’s cafe. We were thirteen/fourteen at the time. Yes, it was common for that age group to do seasonal cafe work back then. We were fascinated and frightened by boys in equal measure. The diary reveals us to be crazy, bitchy, moody and inclined to stomp off and cry (the others, not me of course!). I’ve recently used the diary, along with my own memories, for a short story set in 1971 about Sandi and Steve. It was a hoot revisiting those mad days of funfairs and discos. Diaries from one’s youth are handy for recalling what it was like to be young.

As the WC Fields quote goes, Don’t work with animals and children. Animals in writing is a whole other subject I might cover another time, but I’d contest the children part. I’ve enjoyed creating children older and younger, playing out their stories on paper. They’re complex, wonderful, exasperating, worrying and hilarious. What more could you ask of a character? And I’ll let you into a secret. Despite coining that quote, WC Fields secretly admired children greatly. So there you go. Do work with children, on the page in a writer’s case. It’s fun!

@FCapaldiBurgess

 

Back Where We Belong…

Francesca and Elaine are catching up with what’s been going on in the last couple of months.

Elaine: So you first Francesca, what’s your excuse for being absent?

Enjoying the RNA London Chapter Christmas meal in December

Francesca: Well Elaine, I spent the latter part of 2017 editing my historical novel, set in 1915/1916 in South Wales. It has taken me a lot longer than the contemporaries I’ve written, for obvious reasons. The history graduate in me has pushed me to research, re-research, then research a little more. It doesn’t take much to become absorbed by even quite minor subjects and spend longer on it than is necessary.

I’ve found this particularly with the census. I’m fascinated with the minutiae of everyday life as revealed by these documents. It’s all too easy to get carried away, especially when you can sit in the comfort of your own home to study them, rather than in a records office as I did forty years ago, straining my eyes to look at the microfiche.

Okay, Elaine, what’s the excuse for your absence from the blog?

Elaine: Oh you mean apart from spending several weeks in bed with the flu virus that has been going around and obviously excluding Christmas, which is always a hectic time in my house. You know, I can’t believe how long it’s been since we last chatted here. Where have those weeks gone?

Elaine’s New Photo

Gosh, I sound like my mother!

Anyway, my year ended with stunned excitement, if that’s possible. I received an e-mail and phone call from Aria, which is the digital imprint of Head of Zeus Publishers. I have signed a three-book contract with them and, if I’m honest, I still can’t believe it. It all feels very surreal after years of working towards that goal, but watch this space for further news of the cover, title and publishing date. To celebrate, my son took a new photograph of me, so I thought I’d share that with you.

So what’s next Francesca?

Francesca: First of all, congratulations! You deserve the success as I know you’ve worked hard. As for me, I’ve nearly finished editing now and it will then be submission time. With a bit more time back, I’m going to concentrate on other submissions too, particularly the short stories, which have taken a back seat during the current novel. I’m looking forward to writing and submitting some shorter pieces.

And what’s next for you, Elaine?

Elaine: I’m working on book two of my contract, but I don’t want to give too much away at this stage. It was already started, but now I know someone is going to actually read it, I’m revisiting the structure of it. I shall also be working on the edits of book one when they come through.

I have a list of things to do, most of it around social media and promotion, but I also need to start thinking about book three.

It’s scary times ahead.

What have you lot been up to then? We’d love to read your comments.

@RobertsElaine11

@FCapaldiBurgess

You can read Francesca’s January Competition Monthly on the RNA Blog here

 

 

Fail To Plan, Plan To Fail

Elaine Roberts has been thinking about what people do to motivate themselves and carry on when things get too much. She’s had a lot going on in her personal life so, consequently, has been feeling too tired and demotivated to do anything. 

When my children get those same feelings, I always tell them life is all about small steps, which lead to bigger steps that occur naturally.

NaNoWriMo Logo

I came to the conclusion I should practice what I preach, so to speak. As a writer, NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) is a motivation, and the aim is to write fifty thousand words in a month. Straight away, the immediate and automatic reaction was “whoa, I could never do that”. Then I thought, what if I aim for fifty thousand, but not worry if I don’t make it because that way, the daily word count would increase.

 

That’s fine if you’re a writer, but what if you’re not. Here are some of the things that have worked for me, which I would recommend:

  • Have an overall plan. My plan is to be published, but my dream is to walk into bookshops and supermarkets and see my books on the shelves.
  • Set specific achievable goals that are measureable, with a realistic timescale for you and the life you lead. It doesn’t matter about how small the goal is, because it’s about stacking the building blocks, towards achieving the plan that you have decided upon.
  • Celebrate when you reach those goals, even if it’s only with a cup of tea and a happy dance around the front room.
  • Put yourself out there, wherever out there is for you. It can be intimidating, but there’s nothing like mixing with people who are aiming for similar things. With the Internet and social media, there are forums and groups you can join.
  • Be positive. I always say to my children, if it was easy everyone would be doing it, whatever “it” is. Don’t take on board other people’s negativity; that is their issue, not yours.
  • Give yourself time to serve your apprenticeship. Learn your craft properly. I have several written novels that I thought were great at the time. When the rejections came through, I was crushed, but now my knowledge has increased, I’m quite relieved they didn’t get anywhere.
  • Write a list. We all love a list. You can’t beat ticking things off a list, to make you feel you’ve achieved something.
  • Whatever the plan is, do your research. Look at what others are achieving and how they are doing it. I’ve come to the conclusion there is nothing you can’t find on the Internet.
  • Above all else, don’t give up. Whenever I feel like that, I remind myself how some of the best authors have struggled to be published, and I don’t put myself in the same bracket as them.
  • Remember it’s all about the journey, not forgetting where you started from and what you can do to encourage others to achieve their goals.

Be Positive

Whatever you want to do, go for it. Make time for yourself and your dreams. The harder you work, the luckier you get.

Good luck xx

@RobertsElaine11

Wintertime Blues: Seasonally Affected Settings?

Francesca considers her wintertime blues and wonders whether this affects the seasons she sets her stories in.

Winter sunset – pretty but too early in the day (Devon)

As a child I don’t think I paid much heed to the clock change of late October that caused daylight to disappear an hour earlier in the afternoons. To me at that time it meant apple bobbing at school, Guy Fawkes Night and ultimately, Christmas. The Yuletide period didn’t appear in the shops so early back then, certainly not in September, and definitely not August when the seasonal catalogues tend to plop through the letterbox these days.

Even now, the earliest I am willing to entertain Christmas is November. I’ve wondered recently whether I’ve picked this random date because the clocks change around the same time and dark afternoons become a reality. After this event I wait eagerly for the first of the Christmas lights to appear in front gardens and windows, as I drive along the road.

One of the summer settings I’ve used (Littlehampton)

Once the festive season is over and the decorations are packed away, I look each evening for signs of later sunsets. I dread the winter months, not because of the cold weather but because of the short days. Possibly this is the reason that five of the six contemporary novels I’ve written are set largely over spring and summer, as is the serial and many of my short stories. Could this be a manifestation of something I shall call Writer’s SAD?

The novel that does have a large winter element ends in July. Two others that begin in late winter likewise end in the summer. The historical I’m currently working on, set in a Welsh mining village in the Valleys in World War I, starts in a November. There is a real life reason for this, but this will also end in July because I want it to.

Maybe you prefer a winter setting (Amsterdam)

Maybe there is something symbolic about beginning a novel in winter and ending it in the summer, for me at least. They start at a ‘dark’ time, ending with sunshine and ‘light’. I could be reading too much into this and it’s probably simply that I like spring and summer so I contrive, albeit subconsciously, to set most of the action then.

Do any of you have a favoured season in which to set your novels, or is it just me?

@FCapaldiBurgess

The End of an Era: Fishguard/Caerleon Summer Writers’ Holiday

Francesca waves a fond farewell to the summer Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard and takes a trip down memory lane

During my stay at the Writers’ Holiday in Fishguard this July, I was very sad to learn that it would be the last such summer event. I’ve attended the summer Writers’ Holiday every year since 2008, when it was still being held in Caerleon. It switched venues in 2014. Here, in no particular order, (apart from vaguely chronological) are some photo memories, some of the venue, some of the area, some of trips during the ‘holiday’ (we all used to work jolly hard, honestly!). Some people seem to be missing from my photos, and some years I can’t locate at all, for which I apologise.  I’m not putting names to anybody, but if you spot yourself in a photo, or you have your own memories of the Writers’ Holiday, feel free to leave a comment. 

Huge thanks, as always, to Anne and Gerry Hobbs for all the hard work and devotion they put into the event over the thirty plus years – for all the courses, after-teas, talks, trips out, pick-ups, choir evenings and everything else they and their family organised. So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, hwyl fawr. Though of course, it’s not entirely the end…

 

 

…No, it’s not the end of Writers’ Holiday altogether, as the February weekend event will still be running. It will now also  feature the wonderful Cwmbach Male Choir, who’ve entertained us all these years at the summer event. More details here.

@FCapaldiBurgess