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One of the leading (Italian) characters enjoys eating. In one of my earlier drafts, I mentioned the dishes he was tasting and the wine he was drinking. At the time he was arguing with his colleague (working undercover in the restaurant). I had very critical feedback ‘you’re supposed to be writing a political thriller, not a cookery book.’ Is it wrong to mention what the protagonists are eating, and maybe even their comments on the quality?

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  • I mention food often. I think it can be an important part of the story, especially in my case of a couple falling in love. It represents their experiences together.

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    • By the way, It is some time since we communicated. How is your novel coming along? Or is it finished 'story of a Hong Kong police inspector working as an interrogator in the spillover of China's Cultural Revolution in 1967'  I'd be intrigued to read it. Roger

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      • White Skinned Pigs and Yellow Running Dogs has been through the manuscript assessment stage and is about to be hawked out to agents. 

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      • Thanks very much, Eric.  My 'food' scenes invariably involve intimate friendships(colleagues), serious discussion (usually Russians + vodka), and the occasional romantic encounter. In earlier versions, some of the latter scenes went 'over the top'; I decided to eliminate those.  

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        • I mention food in my Police Procedural, but only in passing when relevant.  My editorial review and beta readers have not criticised that, or confirming my protagonist's favourite dish.  Strangely, he has similar tastes to me.

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          • Being Anglo-Italian. lived in Denmark and France, worked in South-East Asia/China, Russia and the Caribbean, I have a wide choice of favourite dishes but have refrained from including them! However, I do mention in passing that my untraditional cockney MI6 agent enjoys whelks, pickled eggs and curries (and fry-up as a hangover cure). When I worked in South Africa, I first cam across the word 'orgasmic' to describe a dish. Usually, a dessert. 

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            • The last time I used the phrase "orgasmically good" for food (in real life), my mother-in-law had a fit of the vapours... 

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            • It depends. (I know. That doesn't help, but it is the only correct answer.)

              Forgetting about your fascination with the food, or your love for the scene, would the story lose something if the scene went? If the food aspect of the scene went?

              In effect, is the scene - and the food itself - doing double duty? One as a proactive element propelling your story forward (whether this is revealing character, acting as a plot device, etc.) The other as world-building colour.

              Now, there are times that you will need coloour for its own sake. But, by and large, it should be there to support the definition of character or progression of plot. Also, length plays into this. A single paragraph can get away with being colour only. Ten pages had damned-well better be furthering the story or it deserves to go on the chopping block (pun intended).

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              • Nothing like two pages or even a lengthy paragraph. Invariably used in the context that you mention. 

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                • Everyone has to eat at some point.  In 90,000 words, one or other of my characters has a conversation during a meal/whilst eating or a character mentions food/makes a recommendation, on six occasions.  If I ate so sparsely, I'd be dead, so I don't think it's too much. 

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                  • If your reader picked that one specific beat out of a larger piece, then there may be something about it to consider. If it's all you showed, that inherently skews the datum.

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                  • At least I don't have characters eating other characters!!! 

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                    • See, that's what you're missing out on. A good recipe for the cannibals amongst us…

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                    • Your question: One of the leading (Italian) characters enjoys eating. (...)  Is it wrong to mention what the protagonists are eating, and maybe even their comments on the quality?

                      If it helps to show character, it's not wrong at all. I'm thinking Inspector Morse always ended up in the pub having a pint with coleagues, didn't he? This detail helps the characterization and is realistic. We can relate to it.

                      I've read two novels where food was an important part of the story: one was about a woman who loves baking and starts a baking business, but hardly makes any money, till a handsome stranger turns up and her priorities change; the other about a guy who was a cook in a restaurant and wants to impress his girfriends by cooking them delicious meals, while their interests move elsewehere. Both novels had elaborate descriptions of food and cooking, with recepies at end of book.

                      I'm also thinking of the novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris, where the whole story revolves around... chocolate, of course.

                      If food is important to your story and your characters, show it. But don't overdo it.  

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                      • Morse is an excellent example. Then there is, of course, Babette's Feast (Karen Blixen), English pen name Isak Dinesen and the Hundred-Foot Journey by  Richard  Morais' but both very different from Morse!. 

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                        • Thanks for all the advice.

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                          • At the risk of hi-jacking this ithread, and picking up on Rick and Donna's comments above about descriptions of food and eating being drivers of plot, mood or characterisation rather than just there for their own sake, I always dislike the tendency in some books (particularly the thriller genre) to describe in achingly lengthy detail the exact brand of weapon or liquor or briefcase or clothing or cigarette or whatever the hell the characters are using momentarily, even when that item is a passing detail and its provenance is irrelevant to the plot.

                            To me it's deeply jarring and throws me out of the story in the same way obvious product placement does in movies. It always smacks to me of the author wanting  to show off their own superior lifestyle knowledge, while actually coming across as one of those people who write into TV drama productions to complain about the buttons on a background extra's uniform being a year out of date.

                            To me, a gun is a gun is a gun, unless the character using a particular make is plot-worthy and important. Ditto cars, whisky, cigarettes, clothing, sunglasses, bicycles, unbrellas cologne or pez dispensers. 

                            I blame Ian Fleming - he started it! 😄 

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                            • And the food James Bond eats is interesting. Though how he gets through so much scrambled egg I don't know. Oddly enough that feature of his life doesn't make it into the films 😊 

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                            • Shaken not stirred!

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                              • On the question of food in fiction - especially historical fiction, and any fantasy with an appropriate historical-tech setting - the thing that really gets me is when authors don't pay attention to the food preparation. Particularly things like the effect on taste of cutting meat with a (not-stainless) steel blade.

                                For anyone interested in such questions, I highly recommend Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork.

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                                • Sometimes the character's love of a particular food (or all food!) is a big part of their personality and the way they talk about it can be quite revealing. I guess it all depends on context. Listing everything they eat every day would be a bit boring but describing a particular meal on a particular occasion and how they were feeling when they ate it could absolutely be part of the story. It's funny I came across your question when I had just reread a first draft of a children's story I have written and noticed how very frequently I mentioned what my protagonist was eating! I need to now decide which of those meals are story relevant and get on with some editing! 

                                  I can't see any reason why a political thriller shouldn't have references to food. A lot of thrillers on TV seem to have lots of scenes set in restaurants. Good luck  with the book.

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                                  • Thanks, Kate. I had been so taken aback by the critique I received concerning the mention of food. Good luck with your book. I've been thinking about writing one jointly with kids.   

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                                    • Roger, regarding critiques & feedback...

                                      Please don't take everything your readers say about your writing at face value. There is also the whole context of he story that they don't know, because they most probably have only read one short excerpt. And when someone's favourite genre is crime, they may not appreciate a more literary piece. Many readers don't even know the difference between literary and commercial, or have hardly read anything outside their preferred genre.

                                      In the past, I've also received very disparaging critiques of my writing, and sometimes it took me aback, but if you leave it to settle for a while, you'll be able to go back to it and see some light.

                                      I remember the first time I received feedback: 4 readers said they did not feel sufficiently engaged with the story to want to read further, but a 5th reader said she had loved the story and would love to read on. She even asked me some time later if I had written some more. I was disheartened but thinking about it over time, I concluded it was a very good result: 1 in 5 meant 20% of my readers were interested. If I ever got that result in the big wide world, I'd be very pleased indeed. (The critiquer was also an experienced writer, so her opinion counted a lot more than the rest.)

                                      And you know what? I submitted that first piece to a competion and it got me a place in the longlist and an email of encouragement. So... there you are!

                                      Yes, it's important to get feedback. But there is feedback and FEEDBACK. All feedback is important though, as it gives you a glimpse of how others see your writing, even if they don't see the starts for the clouds...

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                                    • Thanks, Donna for such a lengthy response. As I mentioned in a post somewhere last week, I have decided to write what comes into my head and "own" what I am writing based on pure enjoyment. My son circulated the second draft of part one of my trilogy, and I had quite a positive feedback (meals included!!!!). I have started to re-read Part Two that I wrote for NaNoWriMo three years ago. I managed the 50,000 words in ten days and continued for the remaining days of the month. Obviously, there is plenty of editing to do, but I think the storyline flows quite well. My work was interrupted due to a severe back injury. Still, I managed to enter NaNoWriMo the subsequent year and wrote the third part, again followed by complications with my back and neck (I've broken it twice). I'm gradually picking up speed, and next week I will go into isolation for a couple of months in an attempt to pull things together. I must do so. Much of what I have written as fiction, has actually occurred over the past 2-3 years. 

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