Guest Post: Food Scenes, and Why I Write Them (E.L. Haines)

Well, there’s the obvious answer: because I really like good food.

A fun little anecdote.

You see, I currently live in Egypt, and while Egyptian food is certainly exotic and delicious, it definitely lacks diversity, and especially lacks good ethnic food. Especially pizza. Egyptian pizza is horrible, not gonna lie.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, I was bunkered in Egypt, writing my pandemic thriller, Carried Away. This story takes place in Italy, so of course, I began to describe a Sicilian pizza in one of my scenes. By the time I had finished writing, my mouth was quite literally salivating.

But now I had a problem: I wanted a pizza. And I wouldn’t be happy with any pizza that wasn’t at least as good as the one I had just described. And I would never find a pizza that good in Egypt.

I’m not proud of what I did next. I found myself so jealous of my fictional characters, sitting in their Italian pizzerias, that I went back and edited that scene. The waiter refused to serve that pizza to my character. I took away her pizza, because if I couldn’t have pizza, neither could she.

Such is the power of a good food scene. I hope every one of you has read one of those scenes that makes you hungry. Maybe even made you jealous. Maybe it awakened a craving that consumed your every thought until you finally drove to Taco Bell in the middle of the night for that Crunchwrap Supreme. Hopefully, you didn’t take out your frustrations on any innocent characters around you—whether real or fictional.

An important literary device

I’m sure I’m not the only author who enjoys good food. I might be the only indie author (at least in my writing circles) who has committed to at least one food scene in each book, though.

That’s because long ago, I noticed this advice in a writing forum:

Engage the reader’s senses.

This is simply a description of imagery. But as a novice writer, I tried to think of how I could follow this advice. Obviously, most book description focuses on the visual sense—the dark shadows and shiny wet cobblestones in each alleyway, the flickering sunlight peeking through the verdant canopy of tree leaves, etc.

An author might then address auditory imagery. Perhaps the rhythmic, staccato thumping of a not-yet-dead heart, beating beneath the floorboards… I could never do this as good as Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Edgar Allan Poe—but that didn’t stop me from trying.

Tactile imagery is the next easiest. A warm, fluffy hug from a loved one to bring comfort; the chilling invasion of a cold draft to instill a sense of unease.

And then smells. Studies have suggested that smells create the longest and strongest memories in our sensory experience. Whether remembering your grandparents’ musty living room, or the corner bakery, or your last trip to the beach, you probably remember those smells more than anything else.

Have I mastered the art of imagery yet? Alas, there was one more sense to address! And as a young, amateur writer, I rose to the challenge. I resolved to invoke the reader’s sense of taste.

A literary inspiration

I’ve always admired the dark sarcastic humor of Lemony Snicket, and the thorough research of Michael Crichton. Some of my readers have compared my comedy to that of Sir Terry Pratchett, and I am immensely flattered by the comparison.

But recently I’ve realized another literary influence who deserves credit, and that’s Ian Fleming, the author of the prolific and highly successful James Bond franchise.

If you’re only familiar with the movies (shame on you), you might think that 007 is nothing more than flashy cars, fast women, and a a  peculiarly-mixed martini. But let me share an excerpt from Casino Royale, the very first Bond novel:

‘Now,’ he turned back to the menu, ‘I myself will accompany Mademoiselle with the caviar, but then I would like a very small tournedos, underdone, with sauce Bearnaise and a coeur d’artichaut. While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing. Do you approve?’

So complex, yet… so opulently appetizing. This is a character who knows what he likes and accepts nothing less than his precise demands.

‘You must forgive me,’ he said. ‘I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink. It comes partly from being a bachelor, but mostly from a habit of taking a lot of trouble over details. It’s very pernickety and old-maidish really, but then when I’m working I generally have to eat my meals alone and it makes them more interesting when one takes trouble.’

This should be enough reason alone to read the Ian Fleming books. In these books, Bond is more than a pun-cracking buffoon—he is a man of distinguished tastes and pleasures. And Fleming creates this man by doing something as simple as describing his dinner.

Are you hungry yet?

Well-written imagery is truly necessary for an immersive reading experience. And getting to know a character by what he eats is one of the most intimate ways to create connections with the reader.

•If you’re intrigued by an immersive spy thriller aboard an ocean cruise ship, and the concept of a clever con man with strong breakfast preferences piques your curiosity, then you may be interested in my upcoming novel, Shaken & Stirred. I’ll invite you to sign up for my newsletter with this link; and in doing so, you can get the first chapter of this novel in MP3 format, narrated by the author, absolutely free—and you’ll also be the first to know when the book is available for purchase!

About the author:

Ethan reads all the time and writes so that you can read. He travels the world, ignoring the usual boundaries of space and time, collecting stories, which he loves to tell almost as much as Sparrow himself does.

He has visited more than 25 countries in person, and perhaps more than a hundred in books. He has also time-traveled to more than 40 different years in history. We won’t tell you exactly which ones.

He has written six books to date with more in the works. You can find all his books here on Amazon.

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