Morning Coffee: Food as Setting

RevisionsWhen we think “setting” in a story, we think in broad pictures like woods or ocean shore. We think events, like a wedding or a battlefield; or a geographical location as large as a particular country…or planet if your thing is Sci-Fi. But setting is so much more than that.

Over Christmas I was discussing my book with a friend who had recently read it for me. One of his comments was how much food played a role in Mary Bishop’s story. I had never thought about it before, but he was right. Food is always there. It doesn’t matter if you’re happy or sad or angry, alone or in a group, celebrating or merely breaking your fast with friends. What’s a movie without popcorn?

Food can be used to put your characters in a more vivid place for your readers. Consider: The scene is a high-end restaurant. Soft music is playing, people are talking, candlelight flickers against the spotless crystal glassware. The waiter walks over and places two dinners on the table. He has to use a towel so he doesn’t burn his hands on the heated plates. One is a steak dinner, meat the perfect shade of red inside, its juices mixing with the steamed vegetables and potato. The other is chicken with wild rice and overtop is drizzled an amazing reduction. Your mouth waters. Are you one of the happy two sitting at the table, toasting the occasion, laughing, cutting into your dinner and smiling your approval with that first perfect bite; or are you standing on the other side of the glass window looking in, cold, only a few coins left in your pocket, unable to even buy a cup of coffee to get warm? Same scene, but two very different settings.

When Mary Bishop is faced with her first Christmas alone after her husband’s death, she remembers holidays in the past. She thinks about her mother’s Christmas feast back in Virginia, before the Civil War stripped them of so much and left them hungry. Two very different Christmas’ and food plays as big a part in that setting as the people. When Mary’s reunited with an old friend and wakes one morning to find her house in northern Wisconsin filled with the smells of fresh biscuits in the oven and sausage gravy on the stove she’s taken back to “home”. For Mary’s friend Sarah, it’s Mary’s homemade jam that takes her back to their southern roots.

Whether it’s the visual, the taste, or the smell, food helps define setting. Now, unless you’re writing a book specifically about food, or a character obsessed with food, I wouldn’t suggest putting it in every scene. But consider it where it will sharpen your scene with detail.

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