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. 😉

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

The Lore of a Story

So I recently got a revise and resubmit request from an agent (woo!), and she was kind enough to provide incredibly detailed edit notes. I mean, like wow. Of course she is right on her criticisms, and I’m so excited that the story will be stronger for it.

But one note tripped me up: she wanted to see more lore about one aspect of the story.

Lore? Like, folk tales and writings and all that? But this book has excerpts from books and stories at the beginning of every chapter! What does it mean?!

And so I delved deeper.

Lore is, basically, the backstory , cultures, and history of your characters and world. It’s not the current story, but it can be how the circumstances led to the current story. Think of it as part of worldbuilding.

What kinds of things can we develop as lore?

  1. As mentioned above, it may be writings from the world, such as religious texts, science books, folk tales (or fairy tales), fliers, etc. Pieces of literature from the world itself. Also, if these are used in the book and placed as small excerpts at the beginning of a chapter or the book itself, it’s called an epigraph.
  2. The history of your world is also key lore. For example, in my R&R book, the history of the people is violent against magic wielders, particularly on a specific day 1000 years ago, and that shaped the way magic wielders are viewed now as well as changed the economy and independence of the country as a whole. History, or even the history that is written versus the truth of an event, can shape the very lives and circumstances of both the characters and the plot.
  3. The religion and mythology of the world. Religion plays a huge part in a lot of cultures, and these background beliefs will often dictate the way individuals and governments respond to events. Even a lack of religion will have its own effect.
  4. Character backstory may also be part of the lore, just focused in to a specific person. Knowing and understanding what your characters have faced can truly help you create realistic reactions to events in the plot and their interactions with other characters.
  5. The stories people tell can also be lore, such as local legends (or not-so-local legends), superstitions, folk tales, and fairy tales. Unlike the epigraphs or actual writings I referenced above, here I simply mean the information that people talk about and know in their day to day lives but may not necessarily be established by traditional religion or government (like a religious text would). What led to the development of these stories and superstitions? Are they grounded in truth? What happens if someone deviates from what they’re told to do through these stories?

Lore can refer to a wide range of worldbuilding, and it can be overwhelming. Some writers even get stuck in loops of just creating the background information and never quite getting around to actually writing the story. But if you focus in on which aspects are important for your story to progress and your characters to develop, you’ll find you have a richer sense of the world and more interesting writing.

Personally, I love creating the stories the people believe and sometimes how they view their worlds through a religious lens, both of which are major lore focuses in my R&R novel.

Do you have any bits of lore you love to read and/or write about? What are your favorites? Which ones bore you? Let’s chat in the comments!

And until next week, keep writing. 🙂

~~~

If you want a little extra reading on lore and story, check out this article on the Odyssey!

Creating Living Worlds

One of the most important, and sometimes most difficult, things when writing a world is making it feel alive. We want to feel that the world around our characters is progressing, that it isn’t a stagnant box we created, a world crafted in stone. We want to know that it is realistic. After all, things in our own world are always changing whether we are involved or not. Why shouldn’t your fictional world?

But how do we actually accomplish this gargantuan feat? How do we make our fictional worlds feel active and alive?

Change.

1. Understand that things will still change while your characters are awayAnd show this to your readers.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy and your heroes leave on a quest to a cave in the woods. The village or town from which they left may have been calm and serene, but perhaps they return to the middle of an event. A town isn’t a dead thing; events cycle in and out, patterns of life ebb and flow, streets become busier or sparser depending on what’s happening or the time of day.

Keep your locations alive by making sure to follow a natural rhythm of life. Don’t keep everything always the same.

Besides normal flows of life, realize that major changes can occur while your characters are away, also… or even while they’re right there. Just keep in mind that some of these major events are best left as major plot points. If there are large-scale changes happening, they should have a specific intent, such as a huge natural disaster caused by something related to the heroes’ quest or the deposition of a king leading to unrest the characters will have to address. You need the changes to be relevant to the story and, more specifically, your characters.

My advice, as always: be intentional.

2. Remember that people change, even when they’re not the focus. Your minor characters still have lives, even though we’re not seeing them through the story. Things are going to affect them. Don’t treat them like cutouts. Make sure that they are also progressing and changing as the story goes. They should be impacted by the same changes the characters see or induce, and they are going to respond in a way that matches their own personalities. Use that to your advantage.

3. And finally, just like in our world, civilization advances. What do I mean? Well, the technology, religion, culture, and ideas present in your society should be moldable and dynamic. They should advance and change and contort. Sometimes these changes are small and barely noticeable, like the development of a new generic drug, but sometimes there are major shifts in paradigms or laws. Incorporating changes or advances in technology, ideas, and political climate can add credibility and life to your worldbuilding.

Remember: building a world is just the foundation. Worlds change. Your world should not be static. Let the ideas shift and morph as you write. Write the changes to your world that feel natural to the story. Write a dynamic, living environment for your characters.

(This post also appears at papercraneswriting.tumblr.com)