Food. The Spice of Life

I recently uncovered my copy of A Feast of Ice and Fire: the Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook (which I HIGHLY recommend for the historical goodies in there).  I did it to gear up for the next (and last, let me cry into my pillow please) season.  In the forward, I was struck by how the authors of the cookbook commented on George R. R. Martin’s feasts, and how often he writes them.  I never paid much attention when I was reading the books.  I was too much in the world, and maybe, just maybe, that’s why author’s put food in their books.

Amazing restaurants on the water in #Dubrovnik, Croatia:
Dubrovnik, Croatia

In this new project I’ve realized how important a component food has become.  There are whole scenes around meals, which makes sense for a fantasy novel, but isn’t it that way in life?  Don’t we have the most amazing conversations over a plate of food, or a glass of our favorite drink (be it wine or grape juice)?  We are at our most open when we are sharing a meal, so it makes sense to bring that forth in a written work.  There’s hardly an easy out if you are sharing a meal.  You either suck it up and stay, or you make a dramatic exit.  Either are writing gold.  It forces your characters to follow through with their words and actions.  They don’t get to swing a sword, slip away, or any other easy out.  Not that forcing them to stay is easy writing.  On the contrary.  The next thing you know, you’re writing a scene you weren’t sure you were ready for, but your characters were.  And in the end?  The narrative is better for it.

Food always places a culture.  For my new project, which I brought up in my last post about world building, my new place has some touches for a Croatian heritage I’m only just now discovering, so I’ve made a conscious choice to use Croatian and similar style foods.  Even if people don’t know what burek or kifle is, there’s instantly a feel associated with those words, and that spelling.  It’s a feel I want to imbue my story with, not to mention I like the idea of planning a meal around this new tale.

And there is such a rise in cookbooks inspired off of books/tv shows/movies.  I have an Amazon wish list full of them.  (Arguably, I love historical cooking, so anything that even hints at historical recipes is instantly in my “need” list.)  Eating, and socializing around that act, is purely human.  Of course, as authors, no matter how “other” our characters are, this will always reveal some sort of truth.  Even Turned/Red had some of my favorite, poignant moments, around a table and coffee.

We need food to survive.  And the social interaction that it involves, even if it is just one person.  If we want to be true to life?  Food is on the page, whether we consciously write it, or it just happens.

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World Building: Where the Muse Strikes

Breaking away from Turned/Red to look at a new project I’m working on: my epic paranormal fantasy.  You read that right.  Paranormal.  Fantasy.  A “I see dead people” meets Tamora Pierce world.  I’m very excited; the characters are starting to come into their own, and so is the world, which is never easy.  World building is very difficult, in case you didn’t know.  This world has been particularly interesting.

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Places To Travel Before You Die:
Dubrovnik, Croatia

When I started out, I knew I didn’t want a typical European-like medieval fantasy.  Oh sure, it is pre-gunpowder, so there are a lot of swords, and knives, and staffs.  But there’s no “winter.”  There’s no wool.  It’s all silk and cotton.  There are veils, and gold coin jewelry, leather armor, and sandals.  The air is sweltering most of the time, but the nights are cool.  The food is Croatian, or Slavic.  There are droughts in the plains, trade routes being block, and border wars.  And it’s a lot to organize, but so much fun to build.

There’s always a gateway for me into world building.  Sometimes it is an image I find on Pinterest (we don’t want to know how much time I spend on Pinterest), or a recipe, or a phrase a friend of mine says.  In the case of my new project (I’ve lovingly titled Ghost Crown), it is my little known Croatian heritage.  I’ve spent so much time investing in the Irish/Scottish side, that I wanted to dive into the Croatian, and the more I did, the more the world built itself.

It started with an image of the Grand Palaiska (the royal palace) where it had this very Roman feel with stone pillars, silks draping about, the dress code is delicate, draping about them, silks and cottons, leather and studs.  Everything is open.  The moment that image solidified, the moment I knew I had a place, a time, and a story.  I knew I was taking my love of Roman architecture, and mixing it with Croatian, or sometimes Slavic words, foods, names.

Then I drew a map.  I hate maps.  Half-way through a story, I ignore them to re-write

Ivy covered arcades at Mirogoj  Zagreb, Croatia - Beautiful long outdoor corridor !
Mirogoj Zagreb, Croatia

them how I want/need them to look.  But I did it.  I drew a map with town names, and mountains, and lakes, and neighboring countries.  Oddly enough, this time?  It stuck.  So far.  I’m only 30k words into the story.  There’s still plenty of time for me to chuck it out the window.

But the world is there now.  I know my country’s name: Srebrov.  I know their neighbors.  I know there are docks that my POV character can see from her balcony.  I know there are mountains, and plain-lands where food is grown.  I know there’s a bit of land in dispute between my country and their rival/enemy.  I know the south could care less about the north.  I know these things, and once I know them (and it takes some time.  It isn’t over night), suddenly, I have a story.  The people show up and populate them.

My stories are character driven, but I have to create their world first.  And it’s fun.  Creating a world from scratch means you get to make it up.  You get to decide.  I mean, once the characters show up, I lose all the control, but at least I made their world…  I can still pretend like I did something.

Characters of Turned/Red: The Snow

I’ve looked at the hero: Hunt, and the passion: Mal, but what about the character that draws its influence from one of the most well known fairy tale princesses: Snow White.   Turned/Red saw at least two or three different versions before it settled, and my “Snow White” changed dramatically in each one.  She always seemed to be a reactionary character beside Red, until the moment I realized that we needed to discover her, not be “told” about her.

SNOW WHITE AND ROSE RED illustrated by Barbara Cooney.: Solene White, the Imperial Princess of Faeree, remained “Snow” in all of my manuscripts up until the last edits.  Even now, when I think of her, I call her “Snow.”  It is, after all, probably the most accurate description of the character, and one of the most fun to write.

From the first moment I read Grimm’s Snow White and Rose Red, I always had this idea that Snow was the more mature of the two.  Certainly, she is the more introverted of the sisters.  She never raises her voice.  Or steps out of place.  She is the quintessential princess.  But that is also very two dimensional.  For a fairy tale meant to caution its readers at the time, it is perfect; but for a modern story, it falls very flat.  My “Snow” had to be something more, and she was, from the beginning.

In the early drafts, Solene and Red were the sisters of the fairy tale: they grew up together, trusted each other, were a well-oiled team.  When it became clear that they were separate characters with their own tale, Solene blossomed.  And so did Red.  They no longer had to be so intertwined.  They had permission to be their own person.

Solene became mature, intelligent and well-spoken, a quiet force of nature, rather than a roaring fire.  When she walked into a scene in my head, it was with razor-sharp focus.  Truth-be-told, I loved when she showed up.  She commanded the space like only an Imperial Princess could; and she was no longer a reactionary character.  She drove her own story.  Her own country, really.

Actors often say: “A villain doesn’t believe they are a villain.  They believe they are the hero of their own story.”  That doesn’t just apply to villains.  Change that word for “supporting character,” or “anti-hero” or “side-kick,” anything.  Each character has their own story.  When I made room for Solene to do that rather that push her aside, it made the whole story stronger.

Now, I’m thinking not only does Mal get her own Novella.  Maybe Solene needs one too.

Characters of Turned/Red: The Fire

In continuing with talking about characters, in particular, characters of my book: Turned/Red, I move on to talking about one of the more difficult (but not THE most difficult) character to write.  Why talk about them individually?  Well…  I’m a character based writer, rather than plot based.  What I mean by that is: I write from and for the character first, with the plot second (though I don’t start off plot-less).  A lot of epics are plot first, and character second.  That isn’t to say that either one is less developed or complex, it’s just a difference of approach in telling the story.  Secret:  I love both types when I read.

Anywho… I digress…

On to one of the more difficult characters: Mal.  Mal is Red’s badass BFF who wears glasses, has caramel skin (in my head she’s a badass Latina, but I don’t like to label so people can craft their own image), and is probably the character I most want to BE.  And maybe that’s where my first challenge fell: I wanted to BE her, so I became jealous and found it hard to write her.

She, also, almost falls into Hunt’s category: the beloved character that can take over the story at the drop of a hat.  However, she’s very far from Hunt.  She takes over partly because of the rampant passion and fire I instilled in the character.  Mal burns everything she touches, including a scene.  I loved that about her, and never sought to turn it down a notch, therefore, she was hard to write.  She could easily have overpowered everyone and everything.  (Which makes me think she deserves her own spin-off/novella/something).

Not only that, but Mal became a knife point; a plot point necessary in the story.  The trick with that is: I know it.  I know who she is, what she is, why she is.  I know all the dark and light spots of her.  It became a challenge to leak out bits and pieces of her without revealing it all until the right moment… and I would challenge that even then, you still don’t know even a quarter of her story.

Thinking about it now?  THAT’S why she was so hard to write: I know this wealthy of a story is living inside this character, and I couldn’t let it out.  This wasn’t Mal’s story to tell, even if she was dying to tell it.  Needed to tell it, in some respects.  That fire in her, though, was a fire I needed to help light Red, and in that, Mal became absolutely necessary.

Mal is fire… and fire… is incredibly difficult to control once you give it fuel…

I really should write her novella…

Characters of Turned/Red: The Favorite

I was once told in high school freshman English class, while studying Romeo and Juliet that the reason Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio was because he was becoming too great, too good, too much of a favorite.  He would have commandeered the story.  I have no idea if this is actually true, and really, how could we know (unless you have a TARDIS and can go back and ask Billy Shakes himself).  As an artist, both performance based and written, that stuck with me.  Sometimes the side characters are so interesting that they can pull focus.  In acting, that can be bad, when you’re ensemble and suddenly everyone is watching you and not the main action (notice I say “can” and not “always”).  In writing, it can be just as distracting, unless, you as a writer, find a way to allow that character room to breath.  Now, Shakespeare wasn’t writing a novel, and had to make sacrifices for the good of the visual story, but as writers, we can keep going, fill it in, make room; we have pages and pages to do that, IF we do it right, and in service to the story.

That said, I knew, going into my own book, Turned/Red, that my side characters were far more lovable and interesting than Red herself.  That was on purpose.  I wanted Red to be incredibly flawed, which meant, I needed someone “good” to balance that out.  In my head, the “hero” of the story was always going to be Hunt, not the POV character.  (Note: I’m not gonna spoil it for you, trust me, I wouldn’t do that).  But “hero” is an interesting definition.  Most of us describe that as the quintessential “good guy,” of which, Hunt is, so I feel confident without ruining anything for you as describing him as that; it was the category I put him in when I began writing.

But I never expected to find him both the most difficult character to find “voice-wise” or the most rewarding to experience.  He was difficult in the sense that he never fully revealed himself to me, preferring to keep to the shadows and reveal his story bits and pieces as I went.  That’s rewarding in its own rite, that he lives in your head enough to come through without being heavy handed.  He became my “favorite” because of that.  And because of that, I knew I had to be careful.  This could turn into just Hunt’s story instead of Red’s.

But also because of that, I couldn’t just push him aside.  He needed room.  He needed to be apart of the story, and so he became that.  Whether he was one the page or not, Hunt became my own backbone, my own hero.  Does that matter in telling Red’s story?  Yes, yes it does.  These characters don’t necessarily need to be on the page to help inform the actions of the characters that are on the page at that moment.  To have such a “favorite” is a good thing.  It breaths dimensionality into the story.  I’m glad he was there.

I am also glad that my English class stuck with me.  It’s a cautionary mantra.  When you discover a favorite, as a writer, you have to suddenly tread lightly.  Keep that in mind when the character enters the scene, knowing that she/he could be a scene-stealer and be prepared.  If you’re prepared, I feel like you an maneuver, and play with your “favorite.”  Does that mean you’ll eventually have to kill off your favorite like Shakespeare, not necessarily.  But it does mean you need to be prepared to let them go.  If that’s what the story needs.

Hunt has always been the sounding board of Red’s character, whether that’s on the page in the story, or just in my head.  More often than not, it’s the later.  He’s the rudder, no matter if I broke him or not, if I tossed him aside or not, if I put him through every obstacle or not.

Some would argue that that character should be your lead/POV character.  I’d argue against that.  They are “supporting” characters for a reason: to support your lead on their journey.  When your favorite turns out to be one of those “supporting” characters, go with it.  Let it happen and don’t feel bad.  It doesn’t make your lead any less “lead.”

To read more about Hunt, snag a copy of my book either in eBook Kindle format, or as a print-on-demand copy here or here.