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Does food play an important part in your writing? How about sharing a
favorite recipe of one of your characters, or maybe one of yours?
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I’m definitely a foodie and it should be no surprise that food often features in my work. I’m #CulinaryK for a good reason! Whether it shows the mundane of Victorian farm life or the decadence of high society during the rationing of the second world war, food matters! It’s a human experience to which we can all relate. Relating is one of the key components I often hear readers talk about when reviewing a book. Either the topic or the characters need to be relatable. If there’s no connection, your readers won’t find something that sticks with them, like a nice pancake breakfast.
Breakfast food is my favorite obsession. Still, recipes aren’t necessarily the focus of my work, but the presence of sustenance and it’s meaning to the mood of the scene do occur. For instance, Claire starving through her ordeal, and yet, unable to eat that decadent meal at the Reichstag. No matter how hungry you were, you wouldn’t eat in the presence of Nazi dignitaries, either. I’d be too busy figuring out how to get violent with them but survive.
Some similar things go on with my United States Civil War drama, Blue Honor. While there aren’t necessarily any dinners (or breakfast) with the enemy, Emily is working through a depression brought on by the prospect of growing up a woman in Victorian times. Keenly aware of her circumstances, the youngest Conrad child desires a future with as much promise as her brother, but knows the only way she can achieve that is to acquiesce to her mother’s wishes for a good marriage. Emily isn’t particularly averse to marriage, but she wants to marry someone she actually cares for, not just the boy next door that they’ve set up to provide for her with an expensive education and commission in the military to gild those bonafides, at a time when status and family history mattered to society.
A plate of bright sunny fried eggs is the perfect contrast to Emily’s somber moods. When everything should be cast in hues of blue, we are presented a bright morning with a sunny breakfast. Bad news may be pouring in from the mailbox and her father’s newspaper, but the decadence of their well-stocked farm pads them from the realities that their soldiers are experiencing in the far flung fields of Virginia. Emily’s mother insists that they carry on as close to before as they can, and the Conrad’s are doing well-enough that they can circumnavigate those wants.
Mrs. Conrad would have been publicly shamed for her conduct in Claire Healey’s time (WWII). However, wealth does what wealth will do, as it has the means, regardless of what is going on. The matriarch of the Conrad family, after all, is from the well-connected families of New York. She’s unused to doing without. It was not something they need concern themselves with in the 1860s, either. There was no push to do without on behalf of the war effort like there was in the 1940s.
That said, the Conrad farm is a component in the supply chain. Keeping their workers and each other, in a way, could easily be dismissed as a service to the industry that was keeping the Federal soldiers going. Those left behind had to work hard. Automation wasn’t up to 20th century standards. It was a hard life!
Sometimes, it may feel that some of the meals that the farmhands enjoy are also quite decadent, but these recipes were just the average food of the day. Workers had to be fed a lot of calories to keep them going. Breakfast was and still is the most important meal of the day. It fueled the body and started the day right. The human body was the main machine at work during those times. And, because these workers stayed to work on the farm, the Conrads were quite thankful and wanted to be sure to treat them good, so they wouldn’t take off. This says a great deal about the respect that the family has for their workers, as well as their understanding of social decorum, expectations, and basic science. Because the reader sees the Conrad family respecting their workers, I bet they also have greater respect for the Conrads, and that is a component of character development.
Food is a great way to show something important about the characters in your work. Think of Mrs. Havisham and her moldering cake. Claire eating to excess when stressed and suddenly stopping when extremely stressed queue’s the reader to pay attention. Something is very wrong. So, too, with Emily when she’s staring with despair at a lovely breakfast, or agonizing over supper with Joseph.
As sign or symbol, food is a powerful tool for writers. It sets the table for understanding the character involved it at a deeper level. When it is absent it is something that the reader can feel. Hunger is a deep human fear. The act of eating is a great intimacy, an act of trust. Imagine how different the scenes with Emily feeding her patients would be if she were poisoning them… They’re made more emotional, however, because of the stakes, and in each instance the stakes are raised higher–from Hettie, to Evan’s little brother, and finally Joseph.
While some readers may find it mundane, others will be well-aware of all that can be packed into a moment such as a meal. It’s almost an Easter-egg! Not everyone will catch everything you put into your work, but it is such a good feeling when a reader comes back just as excited about what treasures they’ve discovered in your pages.
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