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Food in Worldbuilding

Over here in the Writing Corner and Beyond things have been pretty crazy this past week. You know the expression ‘when it rains, it pours’? Well it’s true, and I’ve gotten rather wet. If you remember from last week’s post when I mentioned those stories I’d submitted to Havok, I was able to complete all the edits, praise the Lord. This last week I’ve been going back and forth with the team over there with more edits and contracts, too. There shall soon be publication dates scheduled, which is very exciting!

I also helped with a workshop last week on making lip balm and lotion bars with beeswax, and then started job training at the new coffee shop in town. Finally! I have so much to learn, working in a commercial kitchen environment (besides learning how to make fancy drinks like espresso, chai lattes, and egg creams), and all that free time I once had has suddenly packed its bags, but I’m happy to begin this new chapter in my life.

Switching gears here, let’s continue the conversation about fantasy, since it’s still February and the fantasy month celebrations have been continuous and awesome. Over on the blog of Jenelle Schmidt there are some amazing posts about worldbuilding that are summarily fun, interesting, and informative.

In addition to the blog party, there’s a photo challenge on Instagram with the hashtag #fantasymonth (you should totally check it out). The topic for today was ‘books featuring food/meals’.

Well, that’s right up my alley, now isn’t it?

Thinking about it, though, how many books ─ specifically fantasy ─ can you name that spend any kind of time or detail on the food their characters are eating? Not many, in my experience. Redwall would have to be at the top of that meager list, of course. Jacques was so creative with his Abby feasts that I learned I could not read his books when I had a stomachache!

When I thought about it some more, it came to me that this is a great topic to talk about under this year’s worldbuilding theme for Fantasy Month, because culture has a major impact on food, and vice versa. I talked about this in a post a few months ago, during one of my worldbuilding research stints.

I don’t know about you, but a lot of my world revolves around food, whether working in the garden, making yogurt from our raw milk, or figuring out what to prepare for dinner. I like to eat it (like most of us do, I believe), but I’m fascinated by the preparation of it, by how you can take a bunch of random ingredients and make some wildly delicious things depending on how to mix and cook them. There are cultures around the globe that have distinctive flavor profiles, ingredients and dishes that are recognizable as ‘this’ kind of cuisine or ‘that’. Depending on where you are in the world, you have access to certain local foods that influence what the people in that area eat, which becomes a trademark of their food culture.

When I’m reading, I love the parts where the author gives time and detail to the foods of the world they’ve created. It’s a thing people deal with every single day, and it’s a neat piece of insight into a fantasy culture and how the people live.

In the process of writing Falconsbane, I decided I wanted to build a food culture ─ because food is a big part of my life outside of writing, and I think it’s fun. Plus, my MC is a big eater and pays more attention to what’s on his plate. Having decided this, though, there were some things to consider. While this is a fantasy and I could simply make up whatever I want to grow there (and I have to an extent), I wanted to use familiar ingredients to help give both myself and my readers a recognizable flavor profile. After all, one can relate far more to the idea of boiled turnips and hardtack than to plunkers and gimble (which now sounds like a dish I want to use . . .)

There’s also the fact that I wanted to develop actual recipes from this world and put together a cookbook (but that’s a story for another day).

With these two things decided, I had to look into a couple of things: climate and trade. There are so many plants and animals native to specific areas of the globe because of the climate. Temperate? Tropical? Subtropical? Oceanic? Mountainous? Flat? Weather patterns? Temperature? There were so many things to think about, and I will admit that some of these details remain as general ideas floating around in my head, but once these components were (more or less) sorted out I could narrow down what grew in those same conditions.

And while climate determines the internal influences, trade makes up the external influences. In Falconsbane, the country the story is set in is at war with three of its five neighbors, and is fairly isolated from the outside world. However, there is a center of trade in the northern part with one of their more friendly neighbors, so they are still able to import and export goods. The thing is, while they can bring in certain things from the surrounding nations, by the time it gets there it’s become an expensive luxury item. The majority of the country’s food culture therefore is built on what the people can grow, forage, and trade within their borders, which puts some pretty hefty parameters on what I can use, things I never thought about before. Things like pepper. Who reaches for the black pepper in the pantry and considers that the plant only grows in tropical/subtropical climates, yet has become a staple and commonplace seasoning the world over? The same with coffee and tea, a large percentage of spices, too. I’ve had to look into things like grains and what could be used for flour (which is another story for another day).

In tropical and subtropical regions you get a cornucopia of spices that don’t grow anywhere else, like cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger, and cumin. Without the extensive trading routes that have crisscrossed the continents throughout history, none of these things (and so much more) would have made it to the more temperate and oceanic regions where we grow things like cranberries, potatoes, and rhubarb.

For me the research has been fun and fascinating, learning what grows in the land I’ve built and how the people in it prepare their food. I still haven’t gotten it down pat, because there is just so much to consider, and while know I don’t have to go this deep (and you certainly don’t, either, if you want to incorporate more food into your stories!) I am loving it.

Do you know any books that feature food? What did you think of it, did it sound heavenly or positively atrocious? What are your thoughts about food in books? Do you enjoy the extra detail, or would you rather skip dinner and go right back to adventuring? Does it help immerse you into the story? Make you hungry? Have you ever tried making anything from a book/movie/show?

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  1. I love how much thought you put into all this! I never really thought about how for granted we take various spices that don’t naturally grow in our region.

    I made this prompt and then promptly couldn’t think of a single food featured in any book I’d read other than Turkish Delight. LOL But the feasts at Redwall Abbey… YESSSSS. Also, Lembas.

    I’ve put occasional food descriptions into my books, and with Turrim Archive I’ve been doing a lot of research around food. But generally speaking, I keep it pretty simple.

    • I completely forgot about Turkish Delight! Yes! I’ve made that a couple of times, and boy is it interesting – the rose flavor is truly something unique. But yes, the food in Redwall really makes the mouth water, they’re the only books I could think of that paid much attention to food.

      Honestly, the more I hear about Turrim Archive the more excited I am for it to come out!

  2. Part of my story—as you know—uses devices called ration crystals that instantly conjure up food on a whim; but there are downsides to their uses. Otherwise, Ethereal Seals makes heavy use of herbal tinctures for healing. I haven’t done too much research on the topic, though, but perhaps I should! It sounds fun.

    • Yeah, those ration crystals sound pretty nifty – especially while traveling! That would save so much space. I’ve dabbled in herbal remedies for writing and life-ing, and it really is a fascinating subject!

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