Writing About Food

I’ve always wanted a job writing menus for restaurants. To me, menus are a form of word alchemy. Lumps of meat become braised lamb, loin of pork, rump steak. Stew is transformed into cassoulet or bouillabaisse. The humble spud is sautéed or gratinated. Cheese isn’t just cheese. It’s Crozier Blue, Peccorino, feta. And all these delights are served on a bed of vegetables.

I do get a chance to wax lyrical about food in a blog I write for a restaurant in Cork.  And I’m not alone. Never have so many acres of print been devoted to food, whether it’s cookbooks, food blogs, food memoirs, or food-themed novels and short stories. Maybe it’s because we now live in an age where we have the luxury of viewing food as a sensual pleasure, even in a recession. But it’s more likely to be because food offers endless possibilities to writers.

So how can food enhance your writing (aside from the mountains of chocolate you eat to comfort yourself when the words won’t flow.

You can create a feast for the senses. Writing about food gives you the opportunity to tap into all five of your senses when you write: the pop of newly-shelled peas, the bitter-sweet smell of an orange, the sight of a sumptuous, cream-topped dessert.  With a few words, you can make readers’ mouths water.

Oranges: a feast for the senses




Get an insight into your characters: It’s the little things that make characters come alive. And their attitude to food says a lot about them. If they deny themselves food, what else are they denying? If they overeat, are they trying to comfort themselves and why?

Humpty Dumpty, famous foodie character











Food packs an emotional punch. Food is bound up with our memories and our emotions. Eating certain foods immediately conjures up memories of family meals when we were young, or meals we ate on special occasions. Tapping into that memory bank can add real resonance and power to your writing.

To exploit its dramatic potential. Meals provide a great backdrop for conflict between characters. It gives you an opportunity to bring your main characters together and test how they interact. You can use the food as a trigger for conflict, since it provokes a strong emotional response in so many people.

family meals: a rich breeding ground for conflict

We can all relate to food: We all eat food. And we all spend a fair amount of time thinking about it. So a story about food reflects our own interests and concerns. People enjoy reading about other people eating. They get to take part in the feast without having to worry about the calories!

What’s your favourite food book, either fiction or non fiction? How does it use food to stimulate the senses, to capture the essence and the emotions of the characters?

How Writers Relate to Their Characters

When you’re a writer, you get to play God. You have the privilege of breathing life into a character, making them into a believable human being.  To a writer, their characters are no less important than their friends or family. And they know just as much about them as they know about their friends or family.

So how do authors create such strong bonds with their characters?

It very much depends on their style of writing and their personality. From what I’ve experienced in my own writing and in workshops I’ve attended, there are three main approaches I’ve identified.

  1. Guide

character as a wise guide, leading writers through their story

These authors are lucky, if you ask me. They hear the voice of the character in their head and they write down what the character tells them. They’re the authors you hear muttering to themselves on the street. They’re led by their characters through the story. They believe that the character is stronger than they are, so they give complete control to the character. These authors write with their heart and gut; they allow their words to flow out onto the page before they structure them.

  1. Puppet

Bosco - a puppet character brought to life

This is the partnership approach. These authors do see their characters are real beings and tap into what they’re thinking and feelings. They consult with them about what they might do in certain situations. But ultimately, they pull the character’s strings; they decide what happens to them. This is a good approach for authors who aren’t slaves to the rules, but who use the analytical side of their brain to put the brakes on, so that the story doesn’t run away on them.

 3. Construct

Construct: building character from the ground up

These authors take an architectural approach to writing. Before they begin writing, they plan the structure, how the finished product will look. They build their characters from the ground up, with character profiles, case histories and spider diagrams showing how they link to each other. If you’re a logical type who likes systems, this approach will give you the security and concept to begin telling your story.

Thinking about how you relate to your characters will bring you closer to them, to understanding how they work, how they fit into your story and above all, who they are.

How do you relate to your characters? Feel free to share your own insights.

Top 5 Comfort Reads

Last week, I brought you my top five books of all time. This week, I bring you an alternative top five – my top five comfort reads. These are the books I’ve returned to over and over again through the years. They’re the ones with the dog-eared covers. They’re my old friends.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the more you know about how writing works, the more difficult it is to get lost in books. So I’ve decided to pay homage to these books in memory of a time when I could get lost.

  1. The Shell-Seekers – Rosamund Pilcher

I’ve always wanted to go to Penelope’s house, eat one of her delicious lunches and hear her tell stories about her amazing life as the daughter of a famous Victorian artist and her much younger French wife. Penelope is the central character in The Shell Seekers. Her wartime love affairs have a high swoon factor. But what lifts the book above Mills and Boon territory is the free-spiritedness and strength of Penelope herself.

  1. Circle of Friends – Maeve Binchy

Circle of Friends is the literary equivalent of a warm bath. It takes you back to the lost world of 1950s Ireland, where big-hearted, big-boned Benny learns about the meaning of love, loyalty and friendship at university in Dublin. The characters speak in voices we all recognised and they’re an endearing bunch – you’re rooting for them all the way.

3. The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay

This was my favourite book of all time right throughout my teens. I reread it (yet again!) a couple of years ago and I could see why. It’s such an uplifting story and the Africa it depicts is a thrilling place, full of dramatic scenery and epic music. It’s set in South Africa at the height of apartheid. Peekay, the central character, is a bit too perfect for words, but the tale of his struggle to become a boxer is compelling. It’s a triumph of good over evil .

4. Rivals – Jilly Cooper

Nobody does raunch better than Jilly Cooper – she does it in such a humorous way. Rupert Campbell Black is one of the handsomest men ever to grace the pages of a book and he’s the subject of all Jilly Cooper’s major novels. In this, he is finally tamed by sweet-natured Taggie in a heart-melting romance.

5. Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself – Judy Blume

This was my favourite book when I was 10. Sally is also 10, full of imagination and full of questions about the way the world works that no-one is willing to answer. I used to act out scenes from the book, cycling around the yard at home, as I followed Sally’s attempts to get to grips with a house move to Miami Beach in Florida just after World War II and her separation from her father. Sally may have starred as herself, but I saw myself reflected on the pages.

It’s interesting to note that these books may not be on critics’ list, but their authors sell by the truckload, so clearly they’ve won the heart of millions. Proof that literary merit shouldn’t be the only criterion by which we judge books.


My All-Time Top Five Books

Writers write. But writers also read. It’s their reading that forms the cradle for their talent, that inspires them to pen stories of their own. The books writers read shape their own writing. Books show them what goes on under the bonnet, how a story is put together.

This week, I’m paying homage to the five books that have helped me shape my stories, my favourite books of all time. These books perfectly balance the four ingredients of story: character, plot, setting and theme. They’re books that tell stories on a grand scale and though their themes may seem bleak, they offer hope.

  1. Underworld – Don DeLillo

A soaring mountain range of a book that takes the daring leap of making America its central character. And it succeeds, as it takes you on a journey through the decades, to baseball games, subways, film sets and swanky parties. Hard to say what this one is about; there’s a huge cast of interconnected characters. The richness of its prose and breadth of vision took my breath away.

  1. The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro

The least decorated of Ishiguro’s books and it’s easy to see why. Imagine your most jarring dream – and multiply it by 10. Renowned pianist Charles Ryder arrives at a hotel in a central European destination for a concert and is warmly welcomed by the caretaker, but all is not as it seems. This is a book about dislocation, physical, social, cultural and emotional. Probably the most dazzlingly original book I’ve ever read.

 3. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

Sometimes you just need to lose yourself in a thumping good yarn. That’s what A Fine Balance is. But it’s a lot more than that too. It’s about the fates of four people who share a flat in 1970s India. It contains the most perfectly formed sentence I’ve ever read – the entire fate of the characters hinges on just two words. The book is also a window into an exotic, dangerous world you’d never otherwise have access to.

  1. Dancer – Colum McCann

This is a retelling of the life of Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, in his own words and the words of those who knew him. McCann uses the grace and precision of Nureyev in telling the story – his control of his large cast of voices is masterful. And the ending is one of the most memorable I’ve read.

 5. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

I was given this book as a present and stuffed it into the bottom of my groaning stack. A story about two boys flying kites in Afghanistan wasn’t high on my hitlist. Then I dug it out for holidays and found myself crying on the plane home. This book is a feast for the senses and the emotions. It reveals the Afghanistan behind the headlines, a place of colour and ritual. And its tale of friendship betrayed and of redemption speaks to the heart.

If you’ve read these books, I’d love to hear your opinion. And I’d also love for you to share your own top five.