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How Toni Morrison’s works Inspired me to Write

Her rich narratives inspired me to write with depth and without constraint.

When I recently saw Toni Morrison trending on google my stomach flipped. How likely was it that she was trending because she had broken the internet with a controversial picture or been involved in some tasteless topical scandal or a public spat with a peer? Highly unlikely. Toni Morrison was a Nobel prize winning writer who stood on the platform of her integrity to inspire others and scatter her gems of wisdom among us literary types. So when I saw her trending, I thought the worse and sadly I was right. Her recent passing has really saddened me, not only because she was arguably one of the greatest writers whoever lived, but because stumbling on her work as a child is what inspired me to write. It might sound odd but for the longest time I always considered it a privilege that my favourite author was still living and breathing while I was.

An Early Introduction

My introduction to her work came through a copy of the novel Paradise which I found laying around one of the spare rooms in my grandmother’s house. At my young age, a lot of the sentence structures and dense metaphors were beyond me. I was unfamiliar with words which read like art. My first encounter with how she wove her words together so abstractly intrigued me and I hoped to one day access her stories.

I was second time lucky when the motion picture of Beloved was released. A part slave narrative about a woman named Sethe who (now freed) is haunted by the child she sacrificed in her infancy. Sethe lives with her surviving daughter Denver When a mystery woman named Beloved appears out of nowhere and wreaks havoc on their household. Oprah Winfrey bought the rights to the novel and  starred alongside Danny Glover and Thandie Newton in the 1998 motion picture. I was captivated by it and it soon became one of my favourite films. Of course, the novel was even better.

A Life’s Worth of Writing

Toni Morrison did with words, what I hadn’t thought possible. She wove intricate portraits that humanised the suffering of a historically oppressed people. She brought the narratives alive that compelled people of all backgrounds to sit, up, take notice and empathise. Moreover, she inspired me to gather my experiences and spill them onto blank pages through one of her most memorable quotes:

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I absolutely adore this quote. It’s nurturing and yet earnest about the need for us writers (arguably the biggest procrastinators) to be proactive in creating the art that we want to consume instead of waiting for what may never appear. She did exactly this with her own work and thank God she did! I can’t imagine a world without her stories in it. Morrison juxtaposed the traumas of slavery with the infinite possibilities of newfound freedom in Beloved, she liberated her characters without minimising their suffering.

In The Bluest Eye, which I discussed in this previous post, she holds up many mirrors which enable us to see how little black girls view themselves both internally and externally, how their beauty and worth is viewed both within and beyond their own communities and the external factors which help to either shape their strong sense of self-worth (Claudia McTeer) or lack thereof (Pecola Breedlove).

Her works serve as historical artefacts; fictional ethnographies that speak to the very real socio-historical experiences of black women and yet can engage everyone. Her stories are many things at once: harrowing, brutal, awakening, educational, honest, beautiful. I’m just grateful that she inspired me to pick up something that I love- painting pictures with words. And for that I am truly grateful.

Have you ever read anything by Toni Morrison? If not, which writer’s work has inspired you the most? Let me know in the comments below!

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Being a Writer in a Heatwave is Hard

Extreme weather is bound to have an effect on your writing sessions…

Being an author is hard work. You only have to eavesdrop on the conversations of writers to get my gist. You will hear soundbites such as writer’s block, lack of motivation, I’ve just discovered I hate my protagonist etc. It can really be a labour of love but I believe that getting through all of those emotions and the practical debris of the craft is what really makes a writer. You get to show what you’re made of. There is a huge factor that makes writing hard and that we sometimes can’t control and that thing my friends, is life.

In my last article I spoke about creating the perfect writing environment. Sometimes however, the elements have ideas of their own. The UK has recently been in the midst of a heatwave (as has the rest of Europe)- at its’ peak hitting temperatures as high as 38 degrees. You can imagine that at that sweltering point, opening windows and operating fans have had zero impact on me creating my perfect writing environment. You know things are bad when you’re sitting still and the weather decides on your behalf that no matter what, you will wilt like an ice cream. In short, my writing has suffered somewhat but I have to be okay with that because I am human.

Good intentions, not so great outcomes

Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your writing plans conspire to go south.  I started my week as I meant to go on despite the furnace-like temperatures and aimed to transfer that same motivation to my work. However, this heat has made me feel physically faint and exhausted during the nights when I would usually be writing and so I have had no choice but to listen to my body and give it a bit of a break.

I am somewhat of an organic writer and that works for me, however if this UK heatwave returns, I will need a bit of reinforcement in order to push ahead. I will propose two tactics to my usually organic writing process:

Word count

I will enforce a minimum wordcount on myself. You don’t do this? I hear you say- The answer is not really. I write when I am inspired and enthused and when I am not, I stop. That way you stop Writer’s block dead in its tracks as I discussed in this previous article. I definitely do check how many words I have written after a session though as I find it useful to know.

Write notes ahead

Sometimes feeling unmotivated to write doesn’t mean that you should stop writing altogether. Why not write up some notes that will keep you ahead of the game in the next session? My manuscripts are full of incoherent paragraphs containing disjointed sentences and singular words. They act as a guide to my next scenes and thought they would look illegible to anyone else, they act as a beacon for my storylines. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up really pleased with myself because I have more insight into where my project is going. Being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel is a huge incentive for us writers.

So, when the going gets tough, what tactics would you propose to keep yourself going?

Let me know in the comments below!

Create the Perfect Writing Environment Now

You’ve overcome your writer’s block. Now it’s time to create the perfect writing space.

Not all writing sessions are made equal.

In my last article I discussed how to combat writers block. What could possibly go wrong once you’re full of ideas and sit down to write? Our writing environment comes to mind. Creating the perfect writing space makes room for a more productive writing session. Lately I’ve been thinking about what I call writing variables and how they affect our output. The variables I’m going to discuss are those of the physical variety and since we are sensory beings, this affects more of us writerly types than you might think. If I received a pound coin for each writer I’ve heard complaining about not being able to sit down to a session, I would have had a five-course meal at Nobu already. This is why we need to consider creating an ideal writing environment before we even sit down.

Here are some of the variables you may want to consider and adjust before you take up your next writing session.

Room Temperature and air quality

Pollen: An air ioniser or purifier acts to get rid of dust, pollen and cigarette smoke fumes.

If there’s one thing that puts me off writing, it’s a hot and dusty room with the sun spilling into it. I might be bringing back memories of your double Geography lesson and I really don’t mean to, however could air quality be making you retreat away from your next chapter or article? I’m a hay fever sufferer and now that the summer is here, I am definitely finding it physically harder to sit through writing sessions with the same zest that I usually have. It’s like I can’t win at the moment: if I keep a window shut, I’m boiling hot and can’t focus but if I leave it open, I’m inviting the pollen in. If I leave the window shut and the fan on then I’m dehydrating myself from the inside out. Sigh. Get it? It’s up to me to find the right balance so that I can focus on my best writing rather than the forces of nature.

How I usually avoid this is to leave a window slightly ajar for fresh air but to cover it with a sheer curtain to act as a barrier for the excessive bright light as well as pollen. An air ioniser or purifier acts to get rid of dust, pollen and cigarette smoke fumes. Likewise, a humidifier works wonders to alleviate dry skin and alleviate coughs and stuffy noses. If you’re a writer who is serious about your craft, it may well be worth investing in creating the perfect writing environment for yourself.  

Are you hungry or thirsty? Too full even?

I now find it somewhat distracting to eat sugary foods during the process. This has taught me that writing ritual preferences can definitely shift with time…

I’m ever evolving when it comes to my writing and eating co-schedule. Being a night writer who works into the wee morning hours, what works for me has dramatically changed. It’s very rare that I can withstand writing on an empty rumbling stomach. However, while I used to find it mandatory to have a chocolate bar nearby, I now find it somewhat distracting to eat sugary foods during the process. This has taught me that writing ritual preferences can definitely shift with time and that you must respond accordingly.

Writing on an empty stomach only keeps your mind wondering off to that tasty treat in the cupboard. Yet being belly-poppingly full can make you lethargic and unproductive as well. Being proactive here would be to find your sweet spot beforehand to ensure you are not high on sugar and low on energy.

Are you alert? Can you hear me?

The bottom line is if you’re tired, the last thing you are going to want to do is write. I’m absolutely exhausted, it’s time to get writing– said no writer ever.

The con to being a night writer is the fact that sometimes I do get very tired. I have found myself jolting my head up at the screen after having nodded off for a few moments. I hate that feeling because the disorientation is a far cry from the focus needed to complete a writing session. The bottom line is if you’re tired, the last thing you are going to want to do is write. I’m absolutely exhausted, it’s time to get writing– said no writer ever.

Are you physically comfortable?

I admit to being a slight hypocrite on this one because when I get into the swing of one of my projects, nothing can stop or interrupt me. In fact, one writing session was spent working on my novel on a full bladder. Primarily, the ideas were flowing so freely that I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I stayed like that for probably an hour or more- but I would never recommend that. Authors can be the biggest procrastinators and that goes for a lot of writers in general so having a comfortable writing environment to keep you writing is very important.

Feeling physically uncomfortable can be used as yet another excuse to put down the pen or laptop so why make space for that outcome? I would advise that you prep meticulously before writing to avoid this- take that loo break, itch that scratch, cut that pesky hangnail, tidy your writing space- any silly thing that could take away from your full, devoted attention on your project.

I find that manipulating my writing space definitely makes for a better experience which fosters enjoyment in my craft. It allows me to seamlessly zoom into my projects in comfort. As a writer you need to learn what variables do and don’t work for you so that you can increase productivity and get the best out of your writing sessions.

How are you going to adjust your writing environment next time? Let me know in the comments below.  

Five Actions to Take When Writer’s Block Takes Hold

Any writer can attest to the fact that writer’s block is a tortuous predicament.

No writer ever wants it to happen to them but the truth is that if you are human, writer’s block is inevitable! The good news is that you don’t have to torture yourself by staying within its clutches. willing it to go away or metaphorically banging your head against the wall isn’t necessary- I promise. Back in March I wrote an article about how I find writing inspiration. The practices I mention can be used as back up tools when the dreaded writer’s block strikes. Any writer can attest to the fact that writer’s block is a tortuous predicament. that’s why it helps to step away sometimes and refuse to play ball. Step away? I hear you say. I can assure you I am not mincing my words with this specific solution to a writer’s universal dilemma. Here are my five suggestions for actions to take when writer’s block looms and dims your bright ideas.

Step Away!

When the thinking cogs aren’t working, never force them. Doing so merely adds to the feeling of frustration and helplessness at being unable to move forward.  It’s time to step away and reach for inspiration somewhere other than the crevices of your mind.

Go out for a walk and observe the weather and the smells carried by the breeze or the still air. Spot the signs of life as you walk past homes; something as simple as the whiff of laundry detergent or the aromatic spices of a homemade curry could spark an idea and set your writing wheels back into motion.

Have an Experience

Make a marked effort to experience something new: this is the fun part. You can be as adventurous or as in the box as you want. Been meaning to visit a different part of your city or refurbished establishment? A restaurant serving food you’ve never tried? Go! Drink in the sights and flavours, inhale life around you- feel the ambience.

On the contrary it could be something as simple as tasting that new Macchiato fusion you’ve been meaning to try. The flavours could strike a chord and catalyse a new idea- perhaps the sweetness reminds you of an indulgent childhood treat which could lead you to think about the associated emotions…think about what content you could conjure up from that single experience. Testing new waters in any capacity can stimulate new thoughts and thus ideas in the process.

Release Some Endorphins Through Exercise

Endorphins are the ‘happy hormones’ released after aerobic exercise. They lead to the onset of a positive feeling in the body that boosts energy, lifts the mood and can lower symptoms linked to mild depression and anxiety. It can also improve sleep.

Now think about the alleviation of all of these symptoms and the potential they have to hit a variable that could be leading to your writer’s block- Perhaps the stresses of life are clouding your creativity or tiredness is impacting your ability to conjure up or process new ideas. Raising your serotonin levels through exercise could potentially offer improvement in these areas. Even a slight shift in your mood could change your approach towards your craft during a writing session.

Read a Book

What better way to push Writer’s block to the side than to read the work of someone else who successfully beat it? They got through writer’s block and so will you once you give yourself the opportunity to step back, take stock and reup on your ideas.

Make Random Lists

Seriously. The more random, the better. List ideas could be anything from top ten desserts to five of your happiest moments to worst songs to dance to. These ideas might help you strike gold for your next article or scene/chapter outline. You could use the tiniest component from a list to help you develop your next piece of content. Forming multiple lists may help you to strike gold and even if they inspire nothing the first time around, you may go back and find that your next piece of content was staring at you the whole time- from that random list.

What do you do to help lift writer’s block and what action from this list are you going to try the next time it strikes? Let me know in the comments below.

Amazing Things Happened When I Read My Old Fanfiction!

Fanfiction: there is a great amount of freedom in writing whatever the hell you want to, without the constraints of genre conventions…

Believe it or not I started writing fanfiction by accident when I was about 13-14 years old. In fact, at the time I didn’t even know what it was. I went to a friend’s house and she started reading a fanfiction story she had written about her favourite boyband at the time and conveniently inserted herself into the narrative. I found it to be a genius concept; I was boy crazy, I was also fixated with a string of male celebrities who I never stopped sounding off about to anyone who would listen. So what happened when it suddenly occurred to me that I could write all of this stuff down? I ran away with it and created my own world where I lived at the centre.

So guess what I ran into recently after rustling through my old papers? Yep. My whole preteen fanfiction collection written on lose bits of lined paper, carefully folded together in my Graphic Products folder from about a century ago. Am I glad to be such a nerdy pedant who keeps this stuff? You bet, because I had lots of fun going through my fanfiction. Here is what I learned about myself and my writing.

Don’t you know the world revolves around me?

My writing encapsulated a preteen world where EVERYTHING revolved around me. As someone who wears motherly cardigans and sensible trousers on the school run, I found endless entertainment value in the girly glamour of my narratives. I seemed to wear an awful lot of spaghetti straps, string bikinis and ‘boob tubes’ which were popular at the time.  More notable was the constant gaze of others on me. Though it wasn’t explicitly stated, I appeared to dabble in performing as I sang at an awards ceremony as mouths opened in awe as I ‘moved swiftly and stylishly to the music.’ I couldn’t imagine writing myself into such an indulgent narrative now but that’s the beauty of unabashed youth. You say whatever you want to say and not what is necessarily best to drive a story plotline forward.

I am so delicate I just might break

Feminism? Don’t be silly- I need boys to fawn over me all day, every day. Their attention means absolutely everything. This is what my old fan fiction tells me about my younger self and I think that is completely fine.  My concept of the role of a woman hadn’t been defined yet and there is nothing wrong with that at all. It is very interesting however, to see how old-fashioned notions of how women should act and be perceived permeated my work. I hadn’t quite navigated the concept of female empowerment and overzealously concocted an ongoing storyline of a damsel in distress whom a number of suitors where trying to court. I often fled scenes in floods of tears at the littlest slight and once even ‘tripped over a small rock’ only for the fall to be broken by my celebrity crush. Ah, those preteen days of crushes and daydreaming…

I used fanfiction as proactive escapism

At thirteen I hadn’t yet discovered my narrative voice or how to empower a protagonist. In fact, I probably didn’t know what a protagonist was. I didn’t know about the conventional lines of crafting good writing, so I blurred them. My fanfiction was driven around my pre-teen boy crazy existence and I created a fictional place where I was at the centre of it. There is a great amount of freedom in writing whatever the hell you want to, without the constraints of genre conventions. I had no consideration for character integrity and general regard for the writing craft. All of that went out of the window and it made for extremely entertaining writing. I was writing for myself and myself only. This is why I look back at my fanfiction so fondly. It is still so exciting to read the work of someone who was unafraid and uninhibited by the writing craft.

Fanfiction as therapeutic

The beauty of fanfiction is that it feels therapeutic to write what feels good as opposed to what is good for the story. Through fanfiction I got to set my teenage angst aside and create a fun, girly world which reflected my interests at the time and for that I am truly grateful.

What do you think of fan fiction? Have you ever read or written any? Let me know in the comments below.

Finding Writing Inspiration in your Everyday Emotions

Writers! Can you think back to a time when someone really disappointed you or elicited a strong emotion? Weave that into your work.

As a writer you have the advantage of finding inspiration in your everyday emotions. These emotions can be the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or the lemonade in the evening, after a day of sucking on bitter lemons. Only If you know how to manipulate them. Nobody likes to feel like garbage but let’s be real, life is full of challenges and pivots and we will be tested. Find comfort in this one true fact: those negative emotions can act as the pieces of meat that tie the soup of your story line together.

Here are two ways in which you can turn negative emotions into inspiration for your fiction writing:

It can fuel a plotline

Remember that rude shop assistant you encountered the other day? The one who glared at you when you asked where the hummus was? They have the potential to be a fine resource of inspiration. I can see you shaking your head but seriously, hear me out. What about that commuter who knocked into you on Tuesday morning? If none of these scenarios ring a bell, think back to a time when someone really disappointed you or elicited a strong emotion? Gather your thoughts and squeeze that lemonade because you’re about to add a spoonful of authenticity to your work in progress.

Consider the following:

How did the scenario make you feel?

What is the physical description of the person in question?

Step outside of the scenario and consider or imagine (if you don’t know them) what type of person they normally are. Could they have been really stressed out or do you think this behaviour is a part of their normal personality?

What was the setting like? Was it crowded and claustrophobic or spacious? What was the lighting like?

Writing it all down and adding to your inventory

Now that you have a bank of inspiration from your experience/s sentences, begin to jot down notes and words.

Do you have a character in mind that you can project a similar emotion onto in order to push your storyline forward?

Did they feel the emotion from somebody else or did they elicit it?

What was their subsequent reaction?

If you’re unsure, begin to plot down possibilities. You don’t need to have a clear outcome from these exercises. They are merely designed to provide a source of information which you can draw from at any time.

Forcing your character into action

Now take yourself out of the scenario and transfer it to a prospective character. You can have a character in mind or create one. Remember, this doesn’t have to be a main character at all.

Think about what triggers their emotions? Is it the same factors which trigger yours? If not how are they different?

Think about where your character can go with this. Brainstorm the possibilities for embedding this into scenes or storylines. It could be a minor part of one scene or could be a major conflict which creates the story arch. It is all dependent on what you gain from this exercise of digging from past conflicts.

Turning reality into fiction

It takes a box of odds and ends to embellish a work in progress. Taking the good with the bad ensures that you’re collecting resources to draw from at all times. So how will you react to an unsavoury situation next time? Jot it down and think about how you can transfer it to your work in some small way. You can even file it away for future use if it doesn’t fit into your existing work in progress. Is there a situation that you can think of which could inspire your current work? Tell me in the comments below!

Is there ever an ideal place to read?

I had a pang of bookworm withdrawal and wanted to find a place to read when I made a visit to the Sussex coast of Brighton last week. The British weather was abundantly generous at 22 degrees, so you can say it was at its absolute best. And the fish and chips were on point- I personally cannot go to the seaside without having fish and chips! I had the quintessentially British seaside experience minus purchasing seaside rock. I don’t really do sweets anymore, especially the type that stick to my teeth. As a child the downside to going to Brighton used to be that the beach largely contained pebbles instead of sand. Last week I remembered why that detail irked me so much- they’re agony to walk on! Especially when your feet are half numbed by the freezing sea. Funnily enough, hot coals came to mind as I struggled back up the incline away from the tide.

The desire to read could spring up anywhere

As I returned to our spot, on the uncomfortable pebbles, I had a pang of book lust. Despite the thousands of other visitors, all packed around me like sardines on the beach and the pebbles indenting my behind, I suddenly craved a nice read. Of course, it was hardly the time or place for it and the idea flounced out of my head as quick as it came. This leads me to ask the question, where is the best place to read a book?

A beach would seem an ideal place for a bookworm to devour a juicy read but the chances of that go down when the circumstances are like those I just described. Replace pebbles with sand, make the beach slightly more remote- but with a resort behind it for those all-inclusive cocktails and then we’re talking bookworm real-estate!

It’s variables that make a good reading space not a specific location

Of course, there are more obvious locations for reading, like duh- the library. This however, would depend on how yours is equipped. Libraries can be beautiful grand places that you can get lost in with twists and turns and winding staircases, I think I may be venturing into the world of bookworm porn here. When you find a library like the one I’ve just described, it’s easy to spend ages roaming the aisles to find a book and then spend hours getting lost in it. On the contrary, there are those libraries which leave a lot to be desired and leave you itching to get your book and leave.

Which leads me to my next consideration for reading – in transit. Whether on the daily commute or en route to a getaway via plane, reading while travelling can be a way to mute the activity around you and immerse yourself in a world of your choice. Of course, this is dependent on the quality of your carriage. For example, the London commute on a packed tube train confronted by the stench of underarm and looking up into somebody’s crotch when trying to decipher which station you’re at isn’t quite as relaxing as downtime on a long-haul flight. If you’re going to be pedantic about it like I am you could say that it’s not about where you read but about the variables and conditions of that place at the time. A beach could be idyllic but not if, as I described earlier, the features of it don’t necessarily permit comfort. Unwittingly, a long wait at an airport could provide relief to an individual experiencing book withdrawal.

If we must be specific and I do think it’s necessary, my ideal place to read would be on a warm summer’s Friday night. It would be in a freshly laundered bed, in equally laundered nightclothes with a juicy Literary Fiction novel. Oh, and I would be wrapped around that book like a lover so it has to be a paperback.

What is your ideal reading space? Leave a comment below!

To Write or to Read? That is the Question.

I have a pile of books I’ve been meaning to get around to reading. I’m hoping to review some of them in the not too distant future (take this time frame with a pinch of salt!) but before I get ahead of myself, one major factor needs to be considered. As I look at the pile, it becomes apparent that this requires some serious time management allocation. A skill that I’m not even sure I possess. There’s a fine balance to tread as a writer when it comes to your reading/writing ratio. I think it’s a widely accepted notion that the art of writing is preceded by the pursuit of reading. Most writers would agree that it is a necessity to read in order to season and hone your writing skills. I wonder though how necessary it is to separate the two experiences instead of marrying them together.

Reading for Fun

As a bookworm, I like to isolate my book reading experience to just that, one of sheer pleasure. Sifting through pages to simply find those Aha moments of spotting nifty literary techniques or the like makes the experience about as pleasurable as pulling teeth. I’m a sleepy reader anyway so it wouldn’t work for me. I’m the type of bookworm who loves to curl around a paperback at night and fall asleep, page to cheek.

How Reading Shapes Writing

I definitely feel that my reading history has shaped my writing overall over the years but not in a way that is entirely specific. My voice is my own but being an avid reader has definitely tapped me into the general conventions of fiction writing such as creating irony, humour or creating the type of lingering sentences that poignantly end a chapter.

The line between a bookworm and a writer is definitely fine. We read for pleasure and we also knowingly or not take nuggets of information onboard about a number of things whether it be tone, cadence, sculpting a protagonist or creating humour. I don’t really like to consider these things when reading as I want to benefit from all the cosy things about being a reader and not wracking my brain thinking about how it will improve my own writing. This process of learning from reading is somewhat organic anyway.

My Current Reading List

So, back to the original point of my impending reading list. I have a few oldies in there as I love to reread past books- if I get around to one of my listed books Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy will be my fourth read! For those obvious reasons though, it’s at the bottom of my current to read list. One past read that I will be prioritising however is Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I don’t often read Science Fiction novels but once my now late uncle recommended this to me over a decade ago, I had to give it a try and I was not disappointed. I look forward to revisiting the world of Anyanwu, an immortal shape shifter and you can watch this space for an impending review. This book literally changed the way I look at Science Fiction books forever.

I started reading This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins last year and ended up putting it down because of a stain in the book. Yes, I know it sounds silly, but I purchased the book as new and to find a damaged, stained page in it really put me off as I am easily grossed out. Call me an OCD reader but I like my pages to be clean: they can be worn, discoloured through age and curved but they can’t be dirty! I was really engaged by what I was reading up until that point however, so I will make it a point to finish and review. It was also refreshing to commit to a non-fiction read, which I don’t often do (note to self, more non-fiction reads!) Why should I deny myself a reading experience because of a dodgy seller? Humph!

Other upcoming reads high on my list are Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and Leon by Kit De Waal. The last three books I have mentioned are high priority reads but the others are subject to change as I flip through my book collection and make more purchases. Nothing makes a bookworm/writer like me happier than having a to-read pile of books on my bedside table and who knows? If the beliefs of giants before me are to be considered, it will inform my writing process in some meaningful way.

WRITING FOOD INTO FICTION

Recently I’ve been thinking about the significance of writing food into fiction. Yes, that arguably minute detail that often gets neglected in a story. But is it so minute? Eating plays an integral role in most people’s lives whether our relationship with it be problematic or the joie de vivre. For me it’s a little of both, however that hasn’t stopped me from appreciating descriptions of food as a book lover over the years and incorporating it into my own fiction writing.

A CLOSER LOOK AT FOOD IN FICTION

This fixation with descriptions of food in fiction came about when I read books as a child and began to associate feelings with the descriptions. Feelings which I still distinctly remember today. For example, I have a vivid memory of reading The Perfect Hamburger by Alexander McCall Smith as a ten-year-old in class one day before lunch time. The vivid descriptions of the character’s pursuit to make the perfect hamburger with the right selection of ingredients had my stomach rumbling and made me crave burgers! That precious memory has never left me and it’s all owed to the ‘minutiae’ of food in fiction. Who says that a fiction story has to be all plot and characters? I would argue that the subtle ways in which they relate to something such as food really can offer a broader sense of who a character is and offers yet another branch for analysis for book lovers.

EXAMPLES OF FOOD IN FICTION AND NON-FICTION

Through the often-overlooked lens of gastronomy, we get to understand what it is that drives a character, how they react to scenarios, how organised or disorganised they are or even how healthy their bank balance is. For example, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s non-fictional ethnographic pursuits into the life of the working class of Northern England led him to the home of the Brookers. His description of breakfast in their home included a ‘pale fried egg’ and bread and butter which ‘always had thumb-marks on it.’ I always found the vivid description of the food utterly repulsive yet brilliant in communicating the squalid nature of his lodging abode. On the contrary ‘runny fried eggs’ are used in Toni Morrison’s Beloved as main narrator Denver recounts a second-hand story about her absent father and how ‘a plate of soft fried eggs was Christmas to him.’ Food becomes the medium through which we understand the distance between herself and her father and how this distance metaphorically becomes smaller with an endearing recount about his favourite food. This makes him appear more present and attached to her life in some meaningful way, however trivial.

HOW I WRITE FOOD INTO FICTION

As a writer who is a self-confessed foodie, I find it hard not to write food into my fiction. There is something comforting about rendering an appealing description of food into a scene. It’s almost like a piece offering to a character, something for them to relish. I must admit, upon reflection, I don’t seem to incorporate unpleasant experiences of food or food of an unappealing nature in general. Certainly nothing like the disgusting bread and butter offering Orwell received in The Road to Wigan Pier. A consistent pattern that I have spotted in my works is that food represents relationships. In my upcoming collection of short stories, food consistently rears its head. In one story, a family express their gratitude when the husband returns home with soggy bags of fish and chips, especially the burdened housewife who no longer needs to cook. In another short story I have written about Post-Natal depression, a new mother has forgotten to cook and love expresses itself when her empathetic husband takes over and gently suggests they pick a take-away of her choice instead. Elsewhere in the collection an estranged mother and daughter have a brief run-in over what they are going to order, a detail I used to represent the awkwardness of their encounter. The mother eventually settles on what the daughter is having, showing a willingness to cooperate and make the meeting run smoothly. Here food moves away from being a medium of pleasure to more of a negotiation barometer of how much are we going to get on today? As a writer I definitely find food to be an alluring tool to map out relationships that characters have with themselves and their issues and how this arises from the presence of food or whether food becomes a remedy to aid this. The latter becomes apparent in one of my stories where a woman battling a failing relationship and disused gym membership turns to food for comfort.

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

I find descriptions of appealing bites to eat too difficult not to include and as a reader feel it enhances the experience in a very subtle sensory way which can sometimes be taken for granted. As a booklover, the small details really catch my attention so if a protagonist is in a café, I want to know what they’re having. On a superficial level it adds decoration to a scene. It’s oddly satisfying to be privy to the contents of a character’s meal. For me, the more attractive the better as opposed to the mundane or repulsive.

CHARACTERISATION AND FOOD

On a deeper level it can add to the characterisation aspect of a story. For example, if a character has chosen to eat something superfluously indulgent or on the contrary meagre, It leads us to think about why this is the case. Simply writing food into fiction can inform us about the underlying circumstances of a character and of an extra layer of intrigue. It can support the theory that a character is greedy, self-medicating, rich, broke or whatever else the writer is attempting to convey through their choice of words.

A SPECIAL PLACE FOR FOOD

Food will always have a special place in my writing. It’s too interesting not to and I’m sure many (well, perhaps a humble percentage) of my fellow writers would agree. Additionally, as a bookworm I am certainly grateful for the morsels offered up in my favourite reads. Let me propose this to my bookworms out there: the next time a scene includes a description of food, don’t skim over it. Think closely about what is being signified, it might sound boring but it could actually enrich your reading experience! Seriously, try it. I promise it won’t bite.  

I Rarely Look for Inspiration in the Middle of a Fiction Project. Here’s Why…

As a writer, inspiration is something that I don’t often look for. I know it sounds strange as us writerly people are known for digging and delving through the crevices of life to find hidden gems that serve as inspiration. I, on the other hand allow inspiration to come to me in spontaneous form. I let my ideas flow at whatever ungodly time that they pop up and then capture them. Remember the BFG? Rahl Dahl’s giant who was also a dream catcher? He used a net to catch good and bad dreams to put into bottles and store in his cupboard. As an author I take a similar approach because forcing myself to conjure up ideas just highlights the fact that writer’s block is around the corner. Instead when my ideas and inspirations pop up, I take note and capture them.

Never Let an Idea Go!

It’s really important to never let an idea go as a writer. Many of us can attest to scribbling on receipts in the supermarket when our phone battery has died. Better yet, miraculously holding that idea in your head before you reach home looking vacant, mumbling to yourself and dodging conversations with others in the process so as not to drop your genius idea. I have been known to spend the wee hours of the morning writing illegible notes on my phone’s notepad when I should be sleeping. Worse still, when the notepad ran out of space, I made notes in the form of text message and sent them so that they would be saved – maybe that’s just my dramatic #writerslife, however you get my drift. Writers do crazy s**t to hold or retain ideas in our heads when pens aren’t near!

That spontaneous eureka moment of inspiration

One of the upsides to not looking for inspiration is the feeling you get when it appears. That magical eureka moment releases some serious endorphins and that feeling never gets old. A few recent instances stand out in my mind. Take for instance a period of writer’s block that came about a few months ago. It was regarding the main character of my upcoming novel and a male love interest. I wanted them to go on a date but the thought of conjuring up a samey restaurant scene- which I knew was needed- left me feeling really uninspired. I deliberated about the scene and even started to dread writing it which made me postpone working on the project altogether. I didn’t want to move forward without having written it because it was pivotal but I was also too uninspired to write it. The break I took enabled me to work on other projects in the meanwhile and though this may sound cliché, I allowed myself to trust the process. I didn’t know when I would feel inspired to press on with the scene without deeming it a chore but I didn’t allow myself to ponder on it.

Inspiration Will Always Come and When it Does, it Feels Great!

When the idea did eventually come, it was instant. I found myself looking out of the windows of a vehicle as it crawled through traffic one day and the road happened to be one lined with restaurants, most prominently South Asian restaurants. A lover of this type of cuisine, rich curry dishes in cartons began to spring to mind. Did I fancy a take-away curry that night? Nope. My main character and her man did though! Out of nothing, a hiccup in the construction of my novel was remedied without me once ever having to suffer the ails of writer’s block.

This recently happened again when my main character was returning home to get on with some errands whilst considering major life choices. I wanted to document her journey home from the address that she had previously been staying at but couldn’t think of anything other than a monotonous description of her walking through the street, holding her bags and possibly catching a train or bus. Then one day the idea of her bumping into someone significant came to me and I decided to zoom in on the details of their interaction opposed to her journey home, the prospect of which, even bored me to oblivion.

I make it a thing to grasp at ideas that pop into my head IN THE MOMENT during a work in progress. Never take it for granted- being a human being, you might actually forget it and that could be disastrous for progress. So, unleash your inner BFG and capture those ideas and treat them like the magic they are.