Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Food for Thought

Cricket McRae


I recently read a book which, for various reasons, left me cold. It didn’t do the job of engaging me in the story or making me care about the characters. There were several reasons, but one was that the characters never ate.

Off the top of my head I can think of several books where the people who populate the goings on don’t eat. Thrillers have to keep the pacing up, and eating isn’t thrilling (well, to most folks). Other authors have the good habit of skipping all the boring stuff even if they aren’t writing thrillers.

On the other side of the coin are the mysteries that revolve around food. Over time they’ve carved out their own subgenre: culinary mysteries. And boy, are they popular.

My Home Crafting Mysteries don’t really fall into that vaunted category. There are no caterers, no bakeries, no restaurants. Some of the home crafts are food oriented – cheese, mead, and home canned veggies. But really? My characters simply eat a lot. Not a lot in terms of volume, but certainly on a regular basis. Almost like actual people.

Food can be a useful tool to enhance storytelling. Another layer to add to atmosphere, an indicator of things going on under the surface. And some food has deep symbolic roots the author can tap into. It can:

Reflect regional tastes. My books are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the menus include salmon, crab and other seafood which is readily available there. When I moved the fourth in the series to Colorado, meals reflected dishes from south of the border and also featured some of the Southern cooking that Sophie Mae’s mother grew up with.

Indicate the time of year in which the story takes place. Heaven Preserve Us is set in February, so the fresh offerings are limited while the canned goods get a good working out. Spin a Wicked Web is set in June, when fresh peas and new potatoes tossed with parsley butter or salads made from baby greens are realistic options.

Show emotion and the relationships between characters. Missed meals indicate stress and urgency but so can eating peanut butter out of the jar with the biggest spoon in the drawer or wiping out all six portions of chocolate mousse chilling in the fridge. When eleven-year-old Erin is upset about the death of a neighbor, Sophie Mae and her housemate make her favorite meal of spaghetti and meatballs. When Barr refuses a square of Sophie Mae’s classic carrot cake, she knows something is seriously amiss.

Offer additional sensory data without hijacking the story or purpling the prose. Eating is basic, and adding the layer of cooking and food to a story can help ground the reader more firmly.

How else do you think food/eating can enhance a story? Or do you think it detracts from the important action? As a reader, do you enjoy culinary touches in a book? As an author, do you use food as an element of your writing?


Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Cricket! I like reading about a character's food preferences, because it tells me something about them. And, as a writer, I try to engage all of the reader's senses, including taste and smell, so I always have some food references in my books. Funny you mentioned eating peanut butter out of a jar as an indicator of stress, because that's exactly what my whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner does. Since she lives alone, however, she uses her finger. :)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I like to use eating as a way to get folks together for questioning. If Emma or Odelia want to grill someone, they often just meet them for a casual meal or coffee or drinks. Eating is a common ground for folks without anything else in common. It's also a great time of day to discuss the details of the case. Don't we all regroup over meals? It's a natural.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, you got me thinking. Do my characters stop to eat? Yup. Do they take care of other bodily needs? Yup. In my last ms, my agent even made me remove one of the bathroom scenes.

Sue Ann, I knew you wrote about vampires, but didn't know Emma and Odelia were cannibals.

Lois Winston said...

Cricket, great post! I once heard a "big name in the industry" talk about how authors should remove all eating scenes from manuscripts if they want to sell a book. I disagree. Like any other scene in a novel, as long as the scene is progressing the plot or telling the reader something essential about the characters, it works.

Darrell James said...

Hmmm... my characters do eat, but usually on the run.

Interesting to think about, Cricket.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Wonderful post, Cricket. I'm also a fan of including food/meals in books, and although I've never organized my thoughts as you did, all of the points you made are great reasons to include food in books.

In Old World Murder, my cop character worries that protagonist Chloe doesn't eat well enough. She's been known to have popcorn (with maple butter) for supper if she needs comfort food.

Lois - was the speaker perhaps the person who said no scene, ever, should take place in a kitchen?

I once heard an editor say that she looked for books that included real moments such as sharing a meal, going to church on Sundays, etc. Her point was that she usually only saw references to church in books with a religious theme, food in books with a culinary theme, etc.

Cricket McRae said...

Beth, I think eating peanut butter out of the jar borders on some kind of archetype ; ) Just the other day I heard a chef on the Food Network confess to doing it.

Sue Ann, you're so right about how meals bring people together. Must say, I thought of you as I was writing this post and wondered how much I want to know about the "food" in your vampire series ...

Oh, Keith. I'm speechless.

Lois, like Kathleen I wonder if the "big name" advised against setting any scene in a kitchen. Ha!

Darrell, plenty of readers can relate to characters who eat on the run!

Kathleen, I think a character's comfort food helps define them in a small if significant way. And oh, popcorn with maple butter sounds divine!

Jess Lourey said...

That's so funny that you're posting on this, Cricket, because I was just thinking a couple days ago about how I NEED my favorite mystery characters to eat--Kinsey Millhone and her quarter pounder with cheese, Stephanie Plum and her grocery store cake frosting and cheetos.

If the book is well-written, I ride on the character's shoulders, and I like a good meal as much as the next person. Makes me wonder if this is a predominantly female writer/reader conceit. I can't think of any male characters off the top of my head who eat regularly, though I do recall Lee Child's Jack Reacher using meals much as the same way Sue Ann's Emma and Odelia do.

Alice Loweecey said...

My characters eat when it moves the plot along. Fortunately Giulia, my PI-in-training, makes homemade pizza and grows her own tomatoes and herbs for sauce. :D

Jenny said...

This is a fun post that got me thinking. I enjoy knowing what characters eat--food likes and dislikes can say so much about a person!

Alan Orloff said...

For some reason, I find my characters going out to dinner a lot. Which is weird, because I don't like to go out to dinner very much. (I do like to eat, though!)

Deborah Sharp said...

I was worried you might be talking about one of my ''Mama'' books leaving you cold, until I got to the part about how the characters never ate ... that's all my folks do! I'm definitely one of those writers who uses food a lot .. not only to establish the setting (people in the south and what they eat, but also t establish the family feel that takes place around a dinner table). Good post, C!

Dru said...

Great post!

I love seeing characters eat, especially food from the region the story takes place in.

Cricket McRae said...

Jess, I also remember Kinsey eating hard boiled egg sandwiches with mayonnaise and lots of salt. ;) The first male character I thought of who not only eats, but cooks is Parker's Spenser. His girlfriend can make a meal out of a cracker, though. And there's a whole cookbook based on the meals James Qwilleran ate in the Cat Who books ('course those are still cozies but with a male protagonist).

Alice, Giulia can come cook for me any day!

Hi Jenny -- thanks for stopping by!

Alan, maybe your characters go out to eat so you don't have to.

Oh, Deb you couldn't possibly think I was talking about Mama. Good Lord. I love the food (and the food fights) in your books.

Btw, the book I referred to was by an author I'd never heard of before.

Hi Dru! I love the extra regional flavor (pun intended) food adds to a story, too.