3 Ways Food is Worldbuilding

I love food.

No, really. I know that a lot of people love food, but really. I. Love. Food. I love the cultural identity that comes with it, the bonding experiences with people over meals, and of course the delicious flavors. I love food in cartoons, I love it in books, I love it in movies.

But did you know that food can also be part of worldbuilding? And that how you use and present food can help to define your world and character relationships better to readers?

And what better topic to discuss right before the US’s Thanksgiving holiday? So let’s dig right in!

Food lends an idea of place and time.

One of the beautiful things about food is that it’s incredibly diverse. A simple meal can tell a reader what kinds of crops are grown, what foods are accepted, what cultures may be involved, and the cooking capabilities of the time and place.

For example, many fantasy authors like to include feasts (more of a discussion on this can be found on the podcast Writing Excuses, season 14 episode 30, “Eating Your Way to Better Worldbuilding”). The foods are often what we see in medieval works like Lord of the Rings, including breads, meats (maybe even a whole stuffed pig), and cheeses.

But utilizing cultural foods, like saurkraut and bratwurst for example, can help the reader ground your world in a culture they may recognize. With a simple inclusion of one of these dishes, you can set a tone for what the reader can expect without overexplaining the culture.

Likewise, if you’re writing contemporary, think of what things you eat on a regular basis. Do you go to a taco truck? The cupcake stand on the corner? The fancy Asian Fusion restaurant on the other side of town?

The types of foods, and their preparation and presentation, can help readers picture your world more completely and set a tone for your world in a way that is unique to food culture.

Food can indicate a character’s condition and status.

In the same vein as the points above, the types and presentation of foods can help to solidify the conditions and status of your character. If they feast, they are in a time of plenty or they are rich and/or generous. If they’re scraping through the garbage to find a few potato peels, they’re in a pretty dire situation. How the character sustains themselves tells a lot to the reader about them.

As an example, I have a section in my first chapter of the R&R story where the younger sister is smelling what the older sister is cooking: a stew with a healthy portion of meat. The younger sister can’t help but feel angry and bitter, as the older sister is preparing meat for no reason other than to impress her peers, and they have limited amounts until the rainy season ends, not to mention how expensive it has become to purchase. She comments that they should be saving it for a feast day.

Just by this exchange, I am showing that the family has limited supplies, as does the village, and that some foods are precious and reserved for important days. It helps me establish the status of the sisters (scraping to impress the rest of the village) and the setting, as in the first point (the rainy season, a season of famine, restricted access to expensive foods).

Food can be used to strengthen a relationship.

Just like setting the tone, setting, and character status, food can also be used for building relationships. Do your characters often cook together? Is it bonding time? Do they eat out together often? Is one of them responsible for the cooking? Do they eat alone in the living room or as a family in a formal dining room?

Here’s another example from my R&R book. In a tense time, when the younger sister suddenly has expanded magic, she worries that her sister has reported her to the village officials (magic is not okay to them). When her sister gets home, they cook together in a way that is natural, indicating they’ve worked together to keep the house for years, but is full of unspoken tension masked by everyday tasks. It’s a way to show the older sister’s real actions…and reveal that she also has magic. It builds on their normal by throwing in something unexpected, something they have to discuss.

Think of a romance. How many movies and books have scenes of the male love interest cooking the woman a meal or vice versa? Or of them cooking together? It shows the amount of care they have for being together and for each other, and it can be used as a cute moment to give readers all the feels.

Food is such a handy tool for relationships!

A final word of caution

As I mentioned above, I love food. And because of this, I tend to have a lot of comfort eating scenes or cooking etc. in my stories. IT IS POSSIBLE TO OVERUSE THIS TOOL. Instead of focusing just on food or having an overabundance, make sure that each scene involving food serves a purpose. Know what that purpose is, and consider if there are any better ways to show it. Ask your beta readers for input. Be intentional.

But also don’t be afraid to pig out now and then on this powerful worldbuilding element. ūüėČ

And of course, keep writing. (And Happy Thanksgiving, friends!)

Spring! (And Creating a Book)

What do spring and creating a book have in common? Let’s find out!

Hi, friends! This morning I noticed my first green leaves on my commute to work! Usually, I don’t see the little development of spring growing around me; I see it all at once, as I open my eyes one morning to be surrounded by lush, green trees.

But today, I saw the tiny green leaves, the bright red buds on trees. And, of course, I’ve been noticing the flowers blooming on trees all week. That’s my favorite.

And it got me thinking about how the development of a story is like the birth of spring. How, you may ask? Well, let me tell you.

Every story starts with an idea, just like every plant that blooms in the spring started as a seed. That seed may have been deposited a long time ago, just waiting for conditions to be right to sprout, or it may have just been dropped and immediately sprinted into growth and development. And this is true for stories, as well. For example, I started a story a few years back that I got partway through and then just stopped. And then I had a new, fresh idea of what I wanted it to be, and it is developing from this old seed I thought was dead.

And while we’re on the metaphor, did you know that seeds can be dormant for thousands (maybe more, I’m a cell biologist, not a botanist!) of years and still grow when placed into the right set of conditions? Amazing, right? And so can a story. You may have had an idea twenty years ago and just now found what you wanted to really make it bloom.

Your seed is growing!

So time passes and you write your first draft. It’s a mess. But, as I recently heard it so eloquently stated, the first draft is simply to make the story exist. This is like the skeleton of the trees from winter. They’re there, but there’s not much to them. Yet.

After the story exists, then we start to make it functional. We rearrange the order of scenes or re-plot the storyline or subplots. These are like the buds and the tiny baby leaves. They are starting to become what we know will one day be a majestic forest full of majestic trees. As long as we continue to feed it sunlight and water and nutrients (feed your ideas and work on the story).

And then we can finally get to the mature story. This is where we get an effective draft, one that tells the story we want to tell and shares the message we want to share. Like the fully bloomed leaves on a tree, they’re finally doing their job of absorbing sunlight and creating food… our book can now feed readers’ imaginations and thoughts.

I’m so happy spring is finally here, and I am loving every minute of the development of my current works. This Cursed Flame is already at the final stage, heading into a summer of fun (you can pre-order it on Amazon and here for all other retailers), Sea of Broken Glass is at the second stage, growing its shoots and flowers, and the Secret New Project is a seedling still making its skeleton. I am in love with all three of these projects (and some other, smaller ones for the future), and I can’t wait to share them with everybody.

So what about you? What stage is your writing in? Or, if you don’t write, what are some books that remind you of spring? Let’s chat in the comments!

3 Reasons I Love Urban Fantasy

Werewolves, shapeshifters, vampires, and… cell phones?

Yup, you read it right. Urban fantasy is one of those genres that likes to mix unlikely creatures with our very own world. But what exactly is urban fantasy, and how does it differ from other, similar, types of fantasy?

Urban fantasy: A subgenre of fantasy which takes place during contemporary times, often in cities (hence “urban”), and involves typical elements of fantasy such as magic and fantastical creatures. Urban fantasy is often associated with leather-clad demon hunter ladies, but that is not a requirement. Also I don’t really like the leather-clad demon hunters… give me the coyote shifter mechanic any day (Hello, Mercy Thompson).

Now, you may be wondering about stories that don’t take place in cities but fit the other requirement: a contemporary setting. Technically, these are¬†contemporary fantasy, though they are often still called urban. The difference is the physical setting.

Then there’s magic realism, a fantasy subgenre made famous by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude). It is normally associated with Latin American writing, but other writers can also pull it off. For example, Neil Gaiman does a wonderful job using this subgenre, though I think most people call it something other than magic realism, like contemporary fantasy¬†(The Ocean at the End of the Lane). Magic realism has its own unique feel; it comes across as a dreamy writing style that seamlessly incorporates magical elements into the everyday. It is difficult for the reader to separate the expected from the magical, and the characters see these magical elements as part of their everyday experience.

But I digress.

While I love other fantasy genres, urban fantasy (including contemporary fantasy and magic realism) has become one of my greatest loves. Why, you ask?

  1. It involves our world. I love the idea that magic could be just around the corner from me. That it surrounds us, even if we don’t know it. I love the possibility.
  2. It involves technology. I don’t know about you, but I love my devices. I don’t mind reading about pre-digital devices times, but the concept of magical creatures using a cell phone or computer is something that really gets me… it humanizes them, in some cases, or draws them into greater relatability, giving them more depth. I love the idea of mixing magic and science! Hey, I’m a scientist.
  3. It has great heroes and heroines. Let’s face it. Some genres just naturally pump out characters we love. I find that urban fantasy is one of the best. You get shifter mechanics (who also have history degrees), half-fae detectives looking for their place in the world, vampires warring with their natural desires, and mermaids trying to hide what they are from the swim team. Extraordinary beings thrust into entirely ordinary situations. I love the contradiction. And I really love the characters for that reason.

Those are my top reasons for loving urban fantasy, but what specific series or books do I love most? Here are my top favorites:

This is by no means an exhaustive list, though. I still plan to read some others, like the Dresden Files, and I love a number of other books and series I didn’t mention here. But my list is pretty long. Indie authors especially, like A.L. Knorr above, tend to publish urban fantasy a lot. Unfortunately, the traditionally published urban fantasy is trickier… some agents and publishers think urban fantasy is dead. But I disagree wholeheartedly; the number of books available and published every day in this genre scream otherwise.

So, I will continue to read (and write) urban fantasy. And I will love it without shame.

~~~

What about you? Do you like urban fantasy? Do you prefer other genres or subgenres? Why? Tell me in the comments below!

Six Relationship Tropes I Hate in Fiction

I don’t know about you, but I have very specific tastes when it comes to fictional romantic relationships, particularly the “I never want to see this” kind. These are definitely personal preferences, and if you like one or more of these, I’m certainly not trying to convince you not to or belittle you for something you like. To each their own! But these are the romantic relationships I could do without in my books.

  1. Student-teacher relationships. Example: Pretty Little Liars
    Especially in YA, I really, really despise these kinds of relationships. In fact, let’s extend this out to any kind of relationship with a dangerous balance of power issue. Student-teacher or student-coach or student-parentofafriend or student/employee-boss. Why, you may ask? It’s gross (if it’s a child or teen and an adult), it’s not legal (or ethical), and I really feel like it gives young readers in particular a skewed idea of healthy relationships. It can blur the lines of right and wrong or safe and unsafe. Any kind of relationship where the balance of power is off (one person has more power than the other, like one controls a job or grade) can be incredibly dangerous and unethical, if not illegal, and it is just as dangerous to idealize or romanticize this abuse of power (as many books do).
  2. Love triangles. Examples: The Infernal Devices, Twilight
    I am so over this one. Particularly as a person who never had more than one crush and never more than one person (if that) interested in her, I find these kinds of stories dull, self-indulgent, arrogant on the part of the one caught in the middle, and unrealistic. That whole “Oh no, two boys like me, how will I choose when I like them both!” thing just grates on me. Yeah, maybe some people can relate to the situation, and that’s fine. And I know enough people like them for it to have become a trope in the first place. But if I never see another love triangle again, it will be too soon.
  3. Distant “family”. Examples: Born of Earth by A.L.Knorr, Newsflesh trilogy (to be clear, I LOVE both of these books/series…except for that relationship)
    These are the romantic relationships that also toe the line between legal and illegal, just barely on the side of “this isn’t actually taboo.” For example, a girl falls in love with her adopted cousin or brother. Yeah, they’re not specifically related by blood, but they are still legally related. It just bothers me.
  4. Actual family. Examples: Flowers in the Attic
    Speaking of family, how about actual family? Like, surpassing the normal family relationship to become romantically involved. It’s just another relationship that weirds me out. I don’t like reading about it. I find it unenjoyable and awkward, and that’s not something I’m looking for in my fiction.
  5. Bad boys/girls. Example: The Infernal Devices and so many others
    I will never understand the books that romanticize falling in love with a guy or girl who treats the other person like dirt. Why would you want to be around someone who is mean all the time or acts like they don’t care about you? A real, good relationship is one where both parties feel valued and loved. Anything otherwise is modeling poor relationships. It’s not as dangerous as the power balance issues, but it can still lead to some bad times for actual humans.
  6. Abusive relationships.¬†Example: 50 Shades of Gray (I didn’t read it, but I know enough)
    Much like some of the above relationships, abusive relationships are difficult. They can model dangerous roles and choices to impressionable people, particularly if the relationship is romanticized. Personally, unless it is incredibly important to the story, I don’t really want to read about it. Especially with something like 50 Shades, where the characters seem ignorant and tolerant of such behaviors and it is never addressed. Abuse is never okay, and a lot of times it is lazy writing. I will be more okay with it if it is addressed or necessary, but it’s a hard balance, and I’ll need convincing.

So these are my most hated romantic relationships in fiction. Again, please remember that if you happen to really enjoy one of these kinds of relationships in your reading, I’m not trying to dissuade or belittle your choices and your enjoyment; I am merely pointing out the relationships I dislike and find particularly worrisome or troublesome.

Now that I’ve shared with you, it’s your turn! What are your least favorite romantic relationship tropes in fiction? Why? Share in the comments!

Don’t Stop Dreaming.

The writer life can be hard.

“Duh, Selina. We’re writers. We know.”

Okay, I know you know. And I’ve definitely talked about it a bit before in a post all about discouragement as a writer. But let’s forget all that for a minute and talk again.

Last year, I called it quits on querying my now-on-Wattpad novel¬†This Cursed Flame. It was a really hard decision, but ultimately, I made it for a lot of reasons. The time wasn’t right to find an agent for that book. And in the time since then, I’ve poured my energy and the time I had into my next book,¬†Foxfire, which is finally in draft 3 and in the hands of a critique partner and beta readers. This is the next book I can’t wait to query.

But in the meantime, it feels like my writing career is stagnant. I feel like my dream is impossible. I feel like I will never accomplish my writing goals. I feel like I should give up, I feel unfulfilled in my day job, I feel like a failure. All because I’m not querying right now.

How silly is that? My first book wasn’t right for the current market, and I don’t have anything else ready, so obviously that means I’m a failure as a writer.

It is so easy to fall into these traps, especially in the early days, when the writing and publishing industry still haven’t accepted you into their ranks as a Published Author. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Remember that you’re doing everything you can, that you haven’t given up, that you are creating something great and making it the best version of itself that you can make it.

So shove that little failure demon back in his hole. You’re not failing. I’m not failing. We’re not failing. And in the meantime, don’t let this feeling keep you from dreaming.

Your turn: Can you relate? Do you have other big writing demons on your back? Tell me about them! How do you deal with it?

 

Writing When Life Gets Crazy

As writers, we often find joy, peace, and stress relief in our writing (ignore those infuriating, anxiety-inducing things like “sharing” and “querying” for a moment). Once we dedicate ourselves to our writing, we even find that we want to make time for it on a regular basis, that it gives us excitement, energy, and purpose.

But when we are just starting out or when our lives start changing, that can be more difficult. Maybe we have full-time jobs or responsibilities that cut into our writing time. Maybe we have a lot of hobbies that eat up our free time. Or maybe events happen in your life that change your ability to write for a time, such as planning parties or weddings or starting a new relationship.

Personally, I encountered this between the end of March and beginning of May. I got married on April 21 (yay!), which meant that for the weeks leading up to the wedding I was insanely busy and stressed (boo!). It also meant that the weeks following the wedding I was traveling and recovering from being insanely busy and stressed.

And you know what? Not having the time, creative energy, or motivation to sit down at the keyboard took its toll on me. I became irritable and anxious about everything, even toward the man I love more than anyone. I started having stress-related health issues (which I’m still trying to fix). I battled my anxiety and my depression to keep from losing it completely (when they say weddings are stressful, it’s an understatement).

All because I had no outlet and I let myself get caught up in not doing the things that restore me. I wasn’t creating and my dreams felt stagnant. I wasn’t working toward them. My job felt pointless and unfulfilling. And yeah, there was good reason I wasn’t working toward my dreams, but still, being able to do something to move you toward your goals is SO IMPORTANT. I knew it was a temporary situation, but I really did suffer for it.

So, in hindsight, let’s discuss how to deal with your writing (or any other dreams) when life gets a little out of control. And maybe next time, I won’t lose it so much either!

  1. Use the time you can find. It can be hard to find time to do things that restore you when you’re busy and stressed and ready to explode. But you know what? You can. It won’t necessarily be your first choice, but if it’s something important to you or something you need for your own self care (like writing for me), then you need to just do it.
    So what do I mean? Can you set your alarm five minutes earlier in the morning and just write for five minutes? What about staying up five minutes later? Brainstorm while you’re on your commute? Take a couple minutes out of your lunch break? As soon as you get home, scrawl a sentence into your work in progress? These are all tiny, but if you can do even one of them, it can make a huge difference in how you feel. It’s small, but it’s not stagnant. You’re keeping your creative brain active and awake. I wish I had done that this past month instead of letting everything sit and fester.
  2. Cut yourself some slack. Listen. Life gets rough sometimes. You run into issues or things get away from you. It happens to everyone. Don’t beat yourself up. We’re all doing the best we can. Your dreams will still be there no matter what you do. Try to take little steps, but if you can’t even do that? Give yourself a break. As writers, we have enough forces coming at us in the form of rejections and critiques and reviews that we really don’t need to add to the negativity just by opening our own mouths.
  3. Take care of yourself. Make sure you put yourself and your health above trying to crank out work. Yes, do those things that you have to, like wedding planning or building a relationship or whatever it is that is interfering with your writing schedule… but don’t forget that your health is the first priority. That includes mental health. So take that bubble bath. Read that book before bed. Take a walk. Just take care of yourself in whatever way you need to in order to get through the tough time.
  4. Refuel yourself. Listen, tough times drain us. They drain us emotionally, physically, mentally, and creatively. Don’t expect yourself to jump right back in as soon as things get better. You need to recover. Make sure you’re putting coins in the bank of creativity: keep notes while you’re busy of things you can come back to later, make every experience count toward writing fodder (as I call it… this is anything I consider usable writing material). But while you do that, give yourself time to relax and refill creative tanks without pressuring yourself to get back to your former writing performance. It takes time. For me, it was my honeymoon. I spent a week with no responsibility, seeing things I’d never seen. And by the third day, I was already inventing story ideas in my head. Refueling is vital!
  5. Keep dreaming. Don’t give up, even if you can’t be as involved and active as you want to be. Life can be hard. But don’t let it steal your joy.

Writers are such a unique breed. We need to write to take care of ourselves, yet our writing is also one of our greatest sources of stress and anxiety, especially when we can’t work on it. So, knowing this, we need to work extra hard during the tough times to take care of ourselves and do what we can to keep the creativity flowing. Or to at least make deposits in the creativity bank. If we can’t take care of ourselves, our writing is going to suffer, and so are we. Take care of yourself.

For now, that’s all. I’m ready to dive back into more creation! Good luck, and please share your tips and comments below. I’d love to know how you deal with your writing when life is busy!

Friends in Creative Places

A while back you may recall my post titled “The Demons of Discouragement.” Well, after reviewing that post recently, I realized that the discouragement I was feeling has been somewhat alleviated. So I started thinking about why that might be, and I have come to a conclusion: I found the right creative friend. This isn’t to say my other support hasn’t been phenomenal, and I love my friends and family for their support every day. But it’s quite different to have a creative friend doing the same work as you.

Back toward the end of summer I had joined a local writing group that met in the Barnes & Noble closest to where I lived (I still attend every meeting!). About the same time I started going, another woman near my age also began attending. Like me, she had written a book. Like me, it was fantasy. Like me, she was ready to query. Unlike me, she was vocal about it.

So we gravitated together at and around these meetings, talking shop and gushing over our books. She began pushing me to do things I would have avoided out of my introverted, shy nature or because of the cost. With her, I attended a writing workshop in Philly in April. I went to a Sarah J. Maas book signing and discovered that she lives pretty close to me. I traded critiques and reviews of synopses and query letters and drafts.

And you know what? The query process is going so much better. I got a request for my full manuscript at the workshop. I have six queries out in the world, shining in their new and improved status. I feel more confident in what I’m doing, not like I’m just flailing in the dark and hoping to hit something.

But you know what’s even better than all that?

I’m in love with my writing again. Because of her, I’ve had professionals tell me I was talented and skilled (a huge boost for the discouraged writer!). I’ve had a passionate friend who loves fantastic worlds as much as I do. I’ve had opportunities to meet people and grow not only as a writer but also as a person.

And because of her, I’m back.

So what about you? What have you experienced or done that has fueled your creation and your passions? I’d love to hear about it!