Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

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The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

Seven Quick-Fire Ways to use Food to Enrich a Novel

Exc1A quickie post for today as I continue to count down towards my Big Day on 1st February (oh, you know what I mean by now, don’t you?).

I use food and mealtimes quite a bit in Singled Out. Here are just a few thoughts on what food related scenes can do for a story.

  1. A social/sociable meal involving two or more people: At home, in a hotel or restaurant, on a picnic, at a barbecue; useful in showing the nature of relationships and the dynamics between various characters. Caution though – this does need quite a bit of dialogue.
  2. Someone eating alone: Reveal character through how they prepare food, what they choose to eat, how they eat and what they do whilst they’re eating.
  3. During a sexual scene: Add a luscious dimension that takes your scene beyond the turgid ‘he touched this, she stroked that…’ zone. Adds sensuality, deploys all the senses without focusing on the obvious.
  4. How someone responds to food: Reveal character through how someone reacts to new or unusual food, or to eating with their fingers or unfamiliar implements. Are they adventurous or narrow-minded, sensual or constrained? Useful in demonstrating how someone’s attitude or demeanour changes over time too.
  5. For nostalgia: The flavours and and aromas of long-forgotten foods, sweets and treats from childhood, school dinners and nursery favourites are all wonderful tools to evoke a mood or nostalgia, or to segue to a flashback/past-times.
  6. In the kitchen: A great location to deploy all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, touches and taste; can be a place of danger (knives, open flames) or comfort (cosy family setting).
  7. A particular single item of food: There are so many different ways of eating, say, an ice-cream, a slice of cake, a plate of wings or ribs, spaghetti, or almost anything else you can think of; can highlight the differences between people, display greed, gluttony, shyness or sensuality.

If you have any favourites that aren’t on this off-the-top-of-my-head list, please do share them.

Ten things you should never eat on a first date

oysters-220955_1280 - narrowOrdering any of these foods on a first date is, in my humble opinion, a relationship-limiting move. Doh.

  1. Corn on the cob – no one looks luscious with their face smeared in melted butter. No one.
  2. French Onion soup – the one with the giant indigestible cheesy crouton floater. To say nothing of the gastrointestinal impact of the alliums.
  3. Snails in garlic butter – you might love them (as I do) but for some, the yuk-factor of these gummy little garden critters is insurmountable.
  4. Oysters – yes, really; they’re seriously overburdened with sexual innuendo and have no role to play on a respectable first date.
  5. Spaghetti Bolognaise – or indeed any flicky tomato-based spaghetti dish. It’s just not cool when your shirt looks like it’s been raining tomato sauce.
  6. Anything requiring chopsticks – unless you’re confident you can deploy them dexterously and without making a total ass of yourself.
  7. Anything wrapped in puff pastry – watching as you choke on stray flakes of dry pastry will smother your date’s libido.
  8. ‘Blue’ steak – order this only when you’re certain your partner is also a vampire.
  9. Sweetbreads – some people are inexplicably squeamish about animal glands. Most mistakenly believe them to be testicles. The potential yuk-factor rating amongst the untutored is up in the stratosphere – we’re in ‘I’m a Celebrity’ territory here.
  10. And last, but not least… Spare Ribs – they come with A BIB. Enough said.

Marmite Moments: Writing Good Sex

There’s nothing like a touch of the erotic in a story to polarise the public.

MarmiteAround 15 years ago I wrote a series of erotic vignettes.  For a few intriguing weeks, a male friend and I exchanged intimate short stories with one another.  He wrote well and I cherished the notion that I held my own in this domain too, armed as I was with a reasonable grasp of the English language and a willingness to embrace the moment.  How wrong I was.

A few weeks ago, I was clearing out my old archive of stuff – you know – the odd bits of stuff you keep because it seems premature or a bit brutal, to discard them.  And somehow years later there they still are, in a box, tucked away somewhere.  In my archive of stuff there was a sealed envelope with a cryptic label. I realised immediately what I’d come across: my naughty stories.

I couldn’t help myself, I had to re-read.

But oh, oh… oh, how they made me weep.  I really, properly cringed at how wincingly, oozingly, butt-clenchingly ghastly they were.  What I’d remembered as intense and subtle scenes creaked with cliché, uncomfortable metaphor and the direst of dialogue. Mortifying. But at least this was all private, locked-away, shared with one other person in a mutually assured destruction kind of a way, destined never to see the light of day.

Writing sex is challenging.  When it comes to the erotic, what excites one person will bore another and offend still more.  You write about sex at your peril because it will polarise opinion, and you’ll never please all the people.  The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award bears awesome and awful testimony to this.

Writing good sex requires so much more than a grasp of the English language; so much more than a talent for creative storytelling; and so much more than an eye for imaginative imagery and metaphor.  You can have all that and still your sexual episode can end up as a damp squib, a corny joke or, worst of all, an embarrassment of inappropriate excess.  That’s because when it comes to writing sex, it’s about more than technique.  It’s about how it’s…  received.  There are two key components, about which you as a writer can do nothing at all; your reader’s personal, private perspective, and the mood of their moment.  So you write your sex and you take it to market and, like Marmite, there’s them that’ll love it, and there’s them that’ll hate it.

A couple of weeks ago, a newbie book club in which I’m participating was discussing which book to read first.  There was considerable support for Fifty Shades of Grey.  It surprised me that several ladies in the room hadn’t yet sampled its pages – and most of these ladies keenly desired the excuse/justification to read this notorious novel.

I’ve read it – the first book only – that was enough.  So have many others; a gazillion copies have sold across the world.  Hats off to EL James for that, by the way; because whatever I think of the writing and the fact that it’s not for me, she’s done very, very well.   Many readers have found her stories stimulating and exciting.  For some it’s even been a springboard to improving the quality of their own personal relationships.  And it’s churlish not to celebrate a book which achieves that for anyone.

But I’m not one of those; I’m one of the readers who found it dreary and insipid.  Am I betraying too much of myself to say that I thought it was tame, that it ventured towards a line, but then turned right around and ran home to mummy?  I didn’t like the repeated oh my’s or the euphemistic turns of phrase.  I thought it too sickly sweet and not nearly edgy or dark enough to do its subject matter any justice.   But that’s just IMHO – and those books sold and sold and sold, so what do I know?

A touch of the erotic in a story can feel dark and delicious, or it can come across as cheap and tawdry, depending on the mood of the moment. It’s the heat of the night, versus the cold light of the morning after.  It’s candlelight and Armagnac one moment, and the stained bedsheets of a run-down motel the next.

So what of my secret package of erotic vignettes? They had their little private ‘heat of the night’ moment and that’s where they should have stayed.  They don’t belong in the cold light of the morning after; fifteen years later, in the hands of someone who fancies she’s learned a little about life since then, not to say a great deal about writing fiction.

They don’t belong; they’ve embarrassed me quite enough. Now they’ve gone for good, courtesy of my office shredder.

So, are you wondering if there’s any sex in my first novel, Singled Out?  Are you wondering if I’ve been bold enough to have another go at the challenge of writing sex into my fiction?

I have, kind of.  I’ve written a story about a singles holiday, after all.  Whilst I haven’t written romantic sex scenes (it’s a psychological suspense novel, not Mills & Boon), I have toyed with sex in one way and another throughout the narrative. Here and there it’s become quite dark and unsettling too – I think, dark and unsettling enough, although others may feel I’ve wimped out.  But it’s all about personal perspective, isn’t it?

So one of these days, if Singled Out gets representation and wins the affections of a publisher, you judge those love-it-or-hate-it Marmite moments from your own personal, private perspective.

Food, Glorious Food

iStock_000002093969_MediumI enjoyed writing a few gastronomic moments into my novel, Singled Out, which is set on a holiday in Turkey. Food allows you to explore all the senses and it can be a prism through which characters’ personalities and passions shine.  People gather together to eat, so food and mealtimes are opportunities for making connections and developing relationships between characters.  They can be made to linger over meals – creating episodes rich in sensory detail and dialogue, and loaded with cues and clues.

Below is a short foodie excerpt from Singled Out. I’d love to know what you think, and to hear how you use food in your own writing.

Mehmet and Defne brought baskets of steaming pide breads covered with napkins, to accompany the assortment of dips – creamy cacik, hummus and iman bageldi – on the table. They deposited platters of succulent tomato and feta salad drenched in olive oil, and saucers of black olives. The bread was pounced upon, ripped and shared. Brenda loaded her plate with dips and slices of tomato. She scraped a hunk of warm bread through the hummus and took a bite. It was sticky and grainy and the tang of garlic and fresh lemon flooded her mouth with saliva.

‘You’re enjoying that,’ said Turner, an inscrutable smile spreading across his features.

‘Indeed,’ said Brenda. ‘Good food, a warm evening—’

‘And great company,’ he added. ‘Here, try this.’ He held out a piece of bread loaded with the cacik – slivers of cucumber, crushed garlic and mint smothered in velvety yoghurt. Brenda reached out to take it with her hand but he pulled back.

‘Take a bite,’ he said, holding it out towards her mouth. ‘Go on. I want to watch you eat it.’ The corners of his mouth twitched.

As she parted her lips he slid the bread on to her tongue. The chilled yoghurt softened in the heat of her mouth and she savoured the silken concoction as it slithered down her throat…

Let them eat cake

cakeIt’s a whole new linguistic world out there on Tuesday evening telly.

I’m loving Great British Bake Off (I’m finally on-board after poo-poohing it for three series).  And I’m deeply into series two of Top Boy too.  For those of you not in the know, Great British Bake Off is, basically, a baking competition, executed in a sunny marquee bursting with pansy-scattered aprons and chocolate sprinkles. By significant contrast, Top Boy has been labelled The Wire for Brits.  I’m not sure I agree, but it’s very good – hard-core narrative, compelling characters, dark places and lots of gritty, visceral action.

So, without further ado, and not for the first time, I’ll confess to a split personality.

But my two favourite Tuesday night programmes have presented me with a mini linguistic conundrum. At 8 o’clock on Great British Bake Off dough is used to make bread.  But an hour down the schedule on Top Boy they’ve said a fierce farewell to the traditional ‘crooks and drugs’ slang for money – that would be, um…,  dough or bread.   Money is now apparently paper.  And as for drugs, well, that’s apparently food.  Which, if nothing else, brings us back to bread, I suppose.

But I can guess what you’re going to ask.  Where would that gritty ‘crooks and drugs’ film, Layer Cake, fit in with all this?