Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 2

“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.” ― Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics

Did you read “A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1“? In that post, I talked about the basics of what semiotics is, and a little about how it’s applied to writing. These links go to articles and sites that will explain further:

Foundational Work:

  • David Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners (1998) is online in its entirety here. This is a linguistics-based text that reads like college coursework from an old British professor, which some of you will hate and some of you will adore. It covers the history of the field and gives a foundation for later study to work from.
  • Arthur Asa Berger’s Cultural Criticism: Semiotics and Cultural Criticism is only available for sale at used bookstores but Dartmouth has one of the intro chapters up here. His Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics is also quite a good place to start, and is available on Amazon here.
  • The Encyclopedia of Semiotics, edited by Paul Bouissac, Oxford U Press (1998) is available online here.
  • A Theory of Semiotics (Advances in Semiotics), Umberto Eco (1976). My favorite! You can get it from Amazon here.
  • Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Umberto Eco (1984). The whole thing is available here as a PDF. Also excellent.

Semiotics and Writing:

… and Advertising:

… and Theater/Performance/Music:

  • Semiotics of the Theater“, The Academy
  • Musical Semiotics in the 1990s: The state of the art“, William Echard, SRB Review
  • The Semiotics of Theater and Drama, Keir Elam (1980). Full book online as a PDF here.
  • The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Indiana U Press (1992). Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones. Available from Amazon here.
  • Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre, Fernando de Toro, U of Toronto Press (1995). Translated from the Spanish by John Lewis. Available from Amazon here.
  • Performance Studies, Semiotics Encyclopedia

… and Film/Gaming:

… and Early Childhood Education

Further Reading:

  • SemiotiX – “A global information magazine. Its aim is to provide periodic snapshots of the situation of semiotic research in the world, with photos, editorials by, and profiles of, active semioticians, mini-reviews of books, state-of-the-arts at a glance, and selective publicizing of scholarly events.” Published by Semiotics Institute Online. They also offer online courses and an excellent archive of articles. They’re also working on an online semiotics encyclopedia here.
  • Signata – a scholarly journal put out by the Université de Liège. It’s not available to the public online, but if you’ve got JStor or other academic access, you should find it there.
  • Umberto Eco’s semiotics links page
  • Google’s list of scholarly articles on “semiotics and fiction” is here.

A Semiotics Primer for Writers, Part 1

I’m going to be chatting with Juliette Wade on Dive Into Worldbuilding this Wednesday, September 14, at 1 PM EST. This is a live online chat, and anyone can join in. It’ll be streaming on YouTube; check out Juliette’s other videos here.

I’ll be talking about two things: writing without a visual imagination, and semiotics, as it’s applied to writing. #SFWAPro

Semiotics (not semiology) is basically the study of what things mean. It examines how signs become stand-ins for meaning — why a shape scratched onto a rock becomes a symbol, becomes a letter, which is interpreted both as a specific sound and an effect on the other letters it’s placed next to, for example; it’s related to linguistics, without being confined to written or spoken language. Semiotics looks at everything as a symbol, and the display of those symbols as extra layers of meaning. Rather that only using the letters on a billboard for meaning, it also explores what effect the font choice, or colors, or size of the letters, has on the meaning of the message. The same words printed in Comic Sans will have a different meaning to a reader than if they’d seen it printed in all caps, using a heavy Impact font, right?

But wait, there’s more! Semiotics also looks at images as if they are components of language, imparting meaning. Traditionally, that’s meant that art historians will look at a painting, and they’ll interpret the color of the subject’s clothes to mean something specific. The objects and animals in a painting will also have an extra meaning. Here’s one example:

Fidelity has long been metaphorically portrayed in Western Art as certain women, a plant, or a dog. (“Fido” even means “trust” in Latin.) In van Eyck’s famous painting, Arnolfini and His Wife, the little dog between the two figures was therefore assumed by viewers at the time to be a reference to the faithfulness they’d enjoy during their marriage.

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Jan van Eyck Giovanni, Arnolfini and His Wife (1434)
The National Gallery, London

It’s important to note that I said “viewers at the time”. The Arnolfini Painting was created toward the beginning of the Flemish Primitives period, during the Northern Renaissance. Anyone who viewed it during the 15th century probably understood about the dog, and several dozen other symbolic references as well. They didn’t need it explained to them, because they were living in the culture that created this visual shorthand. The curtains on the bed were red, and left open, hinting at the consummation of the marriage, the future lovemaking they’d enjoy… which wasn’t any kind of a secret to the painting’s intended audience. The fruit on the windowsill implied both fertility (it’s ripe, round, and fresh) and wealth (those fruits were expensive to import) — which would have been obvious at the time. For outside, untrained, viewers, it doesn’t give the same impression.

Decoding semiotic clues becomes harder as you move away from the originating culture. This could be a movement in time — most of the interpretation was done in the 20th century — or place, which is why early archeologists got so very many things wrong when they applied their 19th-century British or German worldviews to Ancient Egyptian relics. (Or any other African finds, or Native American sites, or South American, or… pretty much any dig that uncovered anything, anywhere. White privilege in action!)

The study of semiotics looks to understand people, art, culture, and events through the lens of interpreting the things left unsaid. It’s also used to understand the written depiction of things outside of dialogue. You’ve been using it ever since you started reading, even if you didn’t know.

Writers often use this shorthand to enhance their writing, so readers are used to looking for and understanding that shorthand. It’s why you probably think of “Sherlock Holmes” when you see a deerstalker hat, or the image of man in a long beige trenchcoat, wearing a fedora, standing in the shadows, implies “early 20th century detective”. It’s why that same trench coat paired with a blue suit and Converse makes you think of the Doctor, instead. These things are the visual expression of “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” a phrase that means much more than the individual words suggests.

For some writers, putting in semiotic clues is a way to skimp on the writing. If you show us at the beginning that your main character looks and moves like Ronald Reagan, then you don’t have to work as hard to convince us that this person is charming, affable, and secretly suffering from memory loss or dementia. We’ll know that, because Reagan has become an archetype, and his presence means those things to many people now.

(There are some sub-genres that work well for this sort of writing: space adventure comedies, and Mythos stories, for example. But unless you’re careful, it’s too easy to rely on flat archetypes and facile writing, putting the work on your readers instead of yourself.)

I’m not saying that semiotics is only a cheat for lazy writers, though. It can be, sure. When done well, it also adds layers and layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy changes into the black outfit in Grease and the boys instantly know what she’s trying to say about herself.

Everything has meaning, when you want it to.

(Part 2 will be published on Wednesday, September 14. Stay tuned!)

Novel-In-Progress Update:11,333 words

I don’t have as many words on the novel as I was hoping by now; it’s been 3 weeks that I’ve been writing seriously on it, and my goal is 5000 words a week. At this point, I’ve got 18 weeks of writing to go to hit my estimated goal of 100,000 words, which is only an guess until I get closer. I’ll accept anything over 90k, really. That’s not the limit for where it will end up after editing, but I’m hoping to write enough in the first draft that I can cut whatever I need to. (I’ve always been a “write too much, cut down to make better” type of writer, and I’m a little nervous I’ll end up with a novella instead of a novel if I’m not careful.)

The lower word count doesn’t represent the amount of time I’ve spent over the last three weeks, though. The first 5,000 words were down in the first week, but I quickly realized there was more to the story than I’d imagined. Much of my time was spent expanding the outline, and researching, once I figured out the story wanted a different ending, and a couple of extra plot points. That’s not a surprise. This novel is like an origami animal: I can see (in my head) the shape of it, what it is, but I have to unfold it to see all the nooks and crannies.

I know the characters get from A to B to C, and that they change along the way, but I write organically, the way that makes the most sense to me. If I set my story in a real place, and I send a character out in one direction, what will they actually run into? If a kid who’s never been outside has to sleep in a forest, how will they react to rain? Or bugs? Or a sprained ankle? Writing those things out requires knowing the answers.

My research this week has included:

I’m building a Pinterest page for my novel, if you’re interested. This week’s image is the reference I’m using for one of my main characters, Zora:

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Isn’t she lovely? She’s not the MC, but she’s one of the two most important other people in the book (and let me just say right now that I’m not going to allow any editor/publisher to “whiten her up”). She was a minor character when I start drafting the novel, but by really thinking about her motivations and how she’d react to the situation I put her in, I realized I was putting her into a certain trope that a flesh-and-blood woman with the personality I gave her wouldn’t fall into. I like her more, as a person, now.

Stay tuned for more updates!

Current Thoughts On My Novel

I’ve recently started what I think of as the committed phase of writing: I’ve gotten enough of the framework in place that now I’m setting aside a little time each day to work on my current novel. I’m in it, now, and I will see it through to the end, which I couldn’t have said for certain 6 months ago. The end may not be completion/publication though – I’ve written other novels that I trunked, and absolutely should have. They were writing exercises: the epic fantasy novel I wrote in high school, the couple of zombie novels I wrote during stints of NaNoWriMo, the novel I wrote last year that is basically modern YA fanfiction of a movie I loved from childhood. I’m glad I wrote them, because I learned from everything, but aside from the last one (which, maybe) they’re the writer’s equivalent of homework. You want to be a great writer? You practice, practice, practice, and file most of it away, because it isn’t a finished product worth showing people, it’s an exercise.

If I could teach every writer in the world one thing, it would be that.

The fake working title of my current novel is An Inheritance of Footsteps, so I’ll be referring to it from here on out as FOOTSTEPS. (I always give my writing a title that I fully expect to change once the project is finished and I have a better idea of what key moment or feeling I want the title to reference.) An Inheritance of Footsteps is the second title this novel has had; the first fit my original idea which focused more on the post-apocalyptic nature of the book, but as it’s developed, it’s become more about journeys, the world we’re leaving to our children and the one their great-grandchildren will inherit. It’s about climate change and government control and societal evolution.

I’m not keeping the current title because it’s ridiculously pompous. It’s the sort of title that you can put together from Electric Lit’s “How to Name Your Big Important Novel” infographic. In fact, I used that post to help me create it. It makes me laugh a little whenever I think too much on it, and I think that’s important. I want to avoid letting my ego get into the way of what I’m writing. I don’t want to keep anything because oh my precious words none can be deleted or can’t kill that character, they’re secretly me!

For the record, none of the characters in this book are secretly (or overtly) me, but I’ve seen authors get so attached to the version of themselves, or someone else, that they wrote into their story – the better version, or the version that gets the love interest, or defeats the enemies – that they can’t see how to edit that character when they need to. I do care about my characters and I am invested in this story, right now. When I’m writing is the time to fall in love and want to tell everything about these people’s lives. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll have to step back and be ready to give up what I originally wanted for them. I’ll have to focus only on what’s the best way to tell this story… and that may mean drastically changing a character, part of the plot, or even cutting things entirely.

We’ll see.

There’s a lot of world building in this book, and that’s what’s taken up most of my brain where it comes to creating it. I’ve written hundreds of scenes in my head over the last several months, turning them around and looking at them over and over. I’ve thought about how it would look as a movie, what the ramifications of certain words or actions are for the characters. For example: I realized that I need one of the main characters to have a completely different reaction to the introduction of the MC than I’d originally jotted down. If she reacts negatively in any way, she loses control over what happens next, basically reacting to her emotions, being carried along by it, instead of choosing for herself to be involved. If she accepts the MC’s presence and more than that, makes herself a part of what’s going on, chooses to be there for what happens next, then she’s got some control over the situation, and has a much better chance of ending up where she wants to be. I want that character to be strong, even when she’s struggling, and to be the kind of gracious and generous that you learn to be when you don’t have a choice, rather than some trope of “the other woman”. So, I have to write her that way.

More later. For now, back to work!