Food in Writing: how best to use it? by Abi Silver | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Food Writing | The Art of Description
Abi Silver

Abi Silver

Many fiction writers place food centre-stage in their stories. In Like Water for Chocolate when Tita is forbidden to marry, she pours her emotions into everything she cooks, with dramatic consequences. In Chocolat, the opening of a chocolaterie in a small French village, at the beginning of Lent, impacts the lives of everyone who comes inside. In both books the authors describe their ‘magical’ food in considerable detail using all the senses. It takes on a life of its own.

But food can also be symbolic. In Chocolat, its existence is synonymous with indulgence, at a time when the local priest is advocating self-denial, as is the Cratchit’s goose in A Christmas Carol (even though Scrooge ultimately provides them with ‘prize turkey’ instead). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Turkish delight Edmund consumes is a prelude to his treachery. And in James and the Giant Peach (my second favourite Roald Dahl story – nothing can eclipse Fantastic Mr Fox), the giant fruit on which James barrels along represents longevity and nurturing, everything which he leaves behind in his previous miserable life.

In crime fiction, food is often used as a means of getting rid of people. A keen gardener, who had also worked as a pharmacist and a nurse, Agatha Christie used poisons to great effect in many of her stories. Although death would be relatively clean, not only would any detective worth his salt have to determine its cause, but also how any poison was administered, by whom, when and why other people were not similarly affected. And we all know how Hannibal Lecter preferred to dispose of his victims. Many cosy crime novels also feature food, with victims being killed on allotments, at village fetes or by incidents involving large vegetables.

The Ambrosia ProjectBut in books where food isn’t the main focus, it can still be incredibly useful to writers in all of the following ways (and probably a few more):

Meals: these are a wonderful tool in the writer’s armoury.

Celebratory meals can be used to great effect, giving away so much about the cook and the guests – how the food is prepared and presented, what food is served and how, where people sit, the conversation at the table, even the absence of a person at a key event – all of these elements can tell us oodles about our characters and can often advance the plot too.

Festive meals can be used at the outset, as a benchmark for what is to follow or to introduce characters, at the end to illustrate reconciliation or a return to fortune and favour or a climax or turning point. Even more minor meals are a chance to pause the action for a moment and allow the characters to engage or tell each other (or readers) something important.

Place – we all know how even the scent of a favourite food can take us back to childhood, a moment in time or a specific memory of another person. Readers love details about setting and building in food to any description can only enhance the experience. Eat, Pray, Love was in many ways a tour of three countries.

Mood – what a character is feeling. Although I’m not convinced about how much we actually do this in real life – consciousness tends to occur in small flashes rather than one constant stream – it is possible to use a character preparing food as an opportunity for reflection on something – listening to the radio or a podcast, watching TV or just thinking thoughts whilst tossing ingredients together, as Henry Perowne does in Saturday.

Time – telling readers what food is on the table can immediately transport us back in time. Cheese and pineapple on sticks conjures up 1970s dinner parties. And The Year of the Flood describes genetically-modified, futuristic foods to match its scary, dystopian world.

Class – I’ve never forgotten that when Kate Atkinson introduced Tracy Waterhouse to us in Started Early Took My Dog, she described her as ‘never eaten an avocado or seen an aubergine’. Even the description of what your characters call their meals provides clues about them and their background.

Culture – food is an important part of many different cultures and having your characters eat a homecooked meal is a way of deftly dropping information about their background into your story.

Character – what and how a person eats can be so revealing (including their attitude to unfamiliar food). Do they bolt it or savour it? Do they favour spicy curries or Sunday roasts? Is their preference to share family meals, eat with friends or alone at their laptop or not eat much at all? Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is more interested in jazz and liquid refreshment than food. Oliver Twist’s request for ‘more gruel’ gives away much about his bravery and determination. But even down to how someone takes their coffee provides an opportunity to say something about your character.

So next time you sit down to write, take a moment to consider if an evocatively described meal, some elaborate food preparation or a skilfully placed cup of tea could play an invaluable role in your story. You won’t regret it.

(c) Abi Silver

My website is I am (4) Abi Silver, Author | Facebook and Abi Silver (@abisilver16) / Twitter

About The Ambrosia Project:

The Ambrosia ProjectWhen food magnate Brett Ingram collapses and dies at a public event, his seafood allergy is blamed and the caterer, Nick Demetriou, charged with manslaughter. Nick hires legal duo Judith Burton and Constance Lamb to defend him. They scrutinise the colourful panellists at the event – a food blogger, a beef farmer, a food scientist, a TV chef and a radio host – who all seem to be holding something back.

There’s something fishy about the allergy story. Did one of the speakers have a hand in the businessman’s death? And what of the nasty incidents that keep befalling them? Should the net be cast wider to include opponents of Brett’s mysterious Ambrosia initiative?

In another of Abi Silver’s nail-biting games of courtroom cat-and-mouse, Judith and Constance must find the truth amid a smorgasbord of lies and deception.

The Ambrosia Project is published  by Eye and Lightning Books and available to buy as a paperback or ebook here or here.

About the author

Abi Silver is the author of the Burton & Lamb legal thriller series. Her latest story, The Ambrosia Project, set in the food industry, is published by Eye and Lightning Books and available to buy as a paperback or ebook.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get all of the latest from delivered directly to your inbox.

Featured books