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Words Good Enough to Eat
Category: Writing
Tags: Writers Abroad ex-pat writers food writing

 

"Food, like sex, is a writer’s great opportunity. It offers material that is both universal and intensely personal." (Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky, about the history of food writing).

Eating is an essential function, but food is also one of life's pleasures. Equally, if you were a Roman emperor or an enemy of the Borgias, eating could be a hazardous enterprise. Food, or lack of it, has been the cause of wars, social change (the Irish famine) and political upheaval (the Russian Revolution). Plenty of scope here for writers.

The early food writers associated food with a wider philosophy. The Chinese wrote about its uses in medicine and healthy lifestyle. The Greek philosopher Epicurus linked it with his theory that good comes from pleasure and evil from pain. Later on, the French savant Brillat-Savarin devised a social theory around diet: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are."

The best writers about food, whether fiction or non-fiction, have the ability to stir up not only tastes, textures and scents, but also a sense of time, place and setting (not just place-setting). Like all writing, it's about showing rather than telling; making the reader experience what is around the plate as well as on it.

I plan to use food more in my historical fiction, since it can say so much about a character's background and the prevailing social and cultural situation.

One of my favourite non-fiction food books is Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, first published in 1960. My well-thumbed copy is shown at the top. Britain had emerged from the throes of post-war rationing only a few years before, and food was plain and unadventurous.

David's book burst onto the culinary scene, with its wonderful descriptions of meals in off-the-beaten-track French auberges, composed of colourful and exotic (then) ingredients. French Provincial Cooking is much more than a recipe book: it's packed full of erudite musings on food and literary anecdotes. 

Nineteenth-century novels are particularly rich in food description. Emile Zola's Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris) takes place in and around les Halles in Paris, the sprawling food market, which, sadly, has moved to the suburbs. His extensive descriptions of the food stalls are a metaphor for the contrast between plenty and the poverty of many of Paris' inhabitants.

Some fiction writers have used food as an integral part of the story. Joanne Harris' Chocolat is an obvious one. Her description of a birthday meal near the end of the novel has me salivating each time I read it. In Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, the food that the main character, Tita, cooks is imbued with whatever emotion she feels while preparing it. Her dishes can move people to tears or ecstasy.

Here is a list of novels that focus on food. 

And if you want to try your fictional food writing skills, the annual Mogford Food & Drink Short Story Prize opens for entries on 5th November 2018 and offers a very tasty prize of £10,000.  

Which writers do you think cook up evocative descriptions of food?

Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

Wear your heart on your sleeve Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers writing emotion

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression by [Ackerman, Angela, Puglisi,Becca]

Portraying emotion is one of the most difficult things in writing. I certainly have to work hard at it, although I have improved since I first joined Writers Abroad many moons ago. My local writing group has spent a number of sessions trying to pin down what constitutes a good portrayal of emotion.

We have each brought examples of writing from published authors. I chose the opening passages of Hannah Kent’s The Good People, which illustrate grief. We have done a number of writing exercises (you might like to try these). One involved writing about a farmer who is grieving for his dead son, but we couldn’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, we had to describe the farmer’s barn and convey in the details his sense of loss. In another exercise, we had to write about someone standing on a beach looking at the sea, but we could choose the emotion. I found both exercises difficult.

After doing a lot of work on this, we have drawn several conclusions.

  • Make readers feel with the characters and evoke a reaction. They have to feel the joy or the fear or the anger. They have to care about what happens to your characters, even if they are not sympathetic personalities.
  • This means showing what characters are feeling and not reporting it to your readers. So “thought” words like thinks, knows, understands, realises, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, etc. are out. Loves and hates are also no-nos. This is bad news for me.
  • Show characters’ emotions through their interactions with other people and their environment, and their actions and gestures. This means avoiding long soliloquies, which hold up the action and drag you back into using those “thought” words. Again, bad news for me.
  • Vary the intensity of the emotions. Even in a thriller, the main character can’t be scared or apprehensive all the time. It’s as exhausting for the reader as it is for the character.

There’s a lot more to it, of course. Whole books have been written about showing and not telling. Also, if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you know all this, so I’m not telling you anything new. However, if you’re like me, you find it maddeningly difficult to do it well.

Help is at hand, though. Someone recommended to me The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. This book lists 75 emotions and suggests ways of expressing them, including body language. Want to convey anger, envy or joy? Turn to the relevant page and you have a range of helpful suggestions.

The book is a helpful starting point, but it’s always a good idea to think up your own metaphors and turns of phrase to describe emotions. If you rely too much on a primer, your creative muscle goes flabby.

Now I’m off to expunge all those “thought” words from my WiP…

 

    

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