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…

The Dating Game: Debut novel seeks ambitious agent

Singled Out Turkey Singles Holiday Novel

My name is:  Singled Out

I am:  A debut novel

I am seeking: An agent

My location: A singles holiday in an unspoilt village on Turkey’s seductive Lycian Coastline

The sun scorches the earth. Exotic rhythms pound out along the beachfront. Strangers mingle, thrown together in pursuit of pleasure for a single week of their lives.  A dangerous individual circles the unwary group like a wolf. He begins picking off victims, playing a sordid private game.  Can he be stopped? Who will dare to get in his way? And what will it cost them?  

Hi there! I’m Singled Out. I’m a debut novel and I’m looking for a soulmate.

Not so long ago I was a wretched mess of a draft – half-baked, blistered with plot holes, scarred by cliché and rambling all over the place.  I would spend my days splurged on the sofa, stuffing my pages with excess adjectives and downing bottle after bottle of purple prose.  Things got so bad that my author staged an intervention. I couldn’t put it off any longer – it was time to straighten myself out.

So I’ve been in therapy.  I’ve been dispatched on courses and hidden away on retreats.  I’ve forced my author to accompany me, dragging her away from the distractions of email, piles of washing, odd jobs, miscellaneous errands, internet retail emporia, and – horror of horrors – out of mobile coverage. I’ve been subjected to group therapy and prescribed some unquestionably excellent advice.   I’ve been on a diet too.  I’ve dropped a dress size, losing 9,000 words to a series of edits – that’s almost 10% of my body weight.  I’ve been working out every day… working out how to make the plot sizzle, working out how to invigorate my characters, and working out how to build the tension and tighten the twists and turns.  Finally, I was given a glossy makeover and now, sculpted and trimmed, I’m double-line spaced and dressed in wide margins and a curly serif font.

I may be scrubbed and pressed, but I’m never going to be a frothy party-girl of a novel. There’s more to me than cocktails and cosy poolside chats; I’ve got my dark side, make no mistake – it may be tequila sunrise one moment, but the next… oh, but that would be giving too much away, and a new novel has to protect her modesty, doesn’t she?

So my word-count is snug and my pages are in pretty good shape, but no novel is perfect; you may feel you want to smooth out some of my grittier characteristics.  And that’s all fine, because you’re the expert and I’m the novice and one thing my author and I have learned over the last couple of years is how to take advice.  But I want to enjoy the process, so the most important thing is that you and my author see eye to eye and get along famously – because that’s when the whole collaborative, mutually beneficial professional relationship thing works like a dream and everyone gets what they need. Happy days.

So are you the agent for me?  Are you savvy and well-connected, a joy to work with, adventurous enough to take a risk with something new and a little dark? Will you nurture me and promote me and find us a publisher? Do you want a long-term partnership, not just with a debut novel, but with her future siblings? Are you the one to single me out, and turn Singled Out into a double-act?

A Singular Sort of Holiday

Turkish Gulet Singled OutSingles Holidays are a surreal experience, and I ought to know; I’ve been on one or two – actually around a dozen. Most of the vacations I took between the ages of 35 and 45 were singles holidays, either alone or with a female friend – a fellow singleton.  If you’re… um… single, singles holidays are a good way to get away for a bit of sun and relaxation, when co-ordinating diaries and budgets with friends has become too complicated.  My favourite destination was Turkey, where small coastal towns and villages and wooden twin-masted gulets can’t be beaten for warm hospitality, dependable sunshine and great food.

Whilst the atmosphere can be stilted at times, singles holidays are generally sociable and good-natured affairs where you can join in and make friends or slip away by yourself if you please, accountable to nobody but yourself.  Most such holidays are hosted or otherwise corralled, to encourage some mingling, usually around food and drink – which isn’t unreasonable when you consider that most people have come away on a singles holiday to be with other people. Otherwise you’d go away on your own, wouldn’t you?

But here’s how it can turn out: You’ll spend one or two weeks with between twenty and thirty strangers.  Some will be easy-going and friendly, some tiresome and irritating; still more will be decent but dull; and there will always be an oddball or two, unique personalities, not necessarily in a good way.  Invariably women will outnumber men by around 2:1, which isn’t great – if you’re a woman.  The faces of this motley crew will fill your photographs but dissolve from your memory.  Months later, you’ll struggle to recall the names of more than one or two.

It’s not all bad though.  I would never have travelled to Turkey on my own, yet over several singles holidays I developed a deep affection for its exotic, laid-back charms.  I met one of my now closest friends on a singles jaunt too.  And I’ve even entertained one or two holiday flings – which burned hot under the summer sun and fizzled to nothing once the chill of the English autumn got into their bones.  That’s the nature of holiday flings though, isn’t it?

When I first contemplated writing a novel, I took myself away on an Arvon Foundation writing course. Write what you know, the tutors said, and it seemed like practical advice. But most of what I could claim any familiarity with seemed dull and uninteresting.  With my imagination stirred by four years of creative writing, I would not say this today, but that’s how it appeared to me at the time.

One thing stood out – those singles holidays.  Most people I asked were fascinated by the singles holiday concept, the environment, the behaviours, the… potential.  Some saw it as adventurous or exotic, others as sad and desperate.  Many felt those people willing to embrace such an experience were either brave… or bonkers.  I’m not quite sure where they thought I fitted into that summation and I didn’t want to ask.

For a writer, a singles holiday is a self-contained scenario, like a locked room in some ways; one location, more or less – a sumptuous one at that; and an uncomplicated timescale.  For a novice like me, that’s encouragingly manageable. Plus I understood the scenario, the mentalities and motivations. Then you need characters, and that’s where it gets properly interesting; because you can dispatch a potent cocktail of personalities away on a fictional singles holiday.

Once I got to recalling my memories and formulating my characters and story, I found the singles holiday setting was fertile ground for fictional misadventure.  Now Singled Out is ready to be sent off on its own adventure – to agents, publishers and who knows where – I’m excited by the story that has evolved from that first germ of an idea. I only hope others will be too.

Reader Anxiety

Library EphesusWhenever we speak, my mother asks ‘how’s the book going’.  Usually she gets the briefest response (‘fine, thanks’) in a tone that suggests a follow-up query is neither necessary nor advisable.  Don’t get me wrong, my mother and I have a great relationship.  But the book is my book, and I confess, I’m over-protective.

Yesterday, buoyed by my progress through the line edit and with the end in sight, my normally well-concealed enthusiasm leaked out.  I told her it was almost finished.

Gah!

She has, on a few occasions, hinted gently that she’d like to read my draft.  Hinted gently; in a way that could be passed over, as if it had been whispered in a voice too quiet to hear.  But yesterday the gentle hint became an insistent plea… please let me read it… I know it’s not my kind of book, but I’d love to read it… because you’ve written it… because I’m your mother…  Ah, yes, that final trump card.

My mother is 78 years of age and quite something (in a good way).  In the last 15 years she’s written and self-published two non-fiction books – both thoroughly researched, serious works which have been well received in their niche sectors; a history of her family from the time of the Inquisition to the present day, and a history of the music publishing business which has been in the family since 1863.  She’s a woman of culture who loves the stimulus of learning, classical music, art, history and travel.  In case you haven’t realised, I’m hugely proud of who she is and what she’s achieved.

My novel – I’ve called it Singled Out – is a psychological drama set on a holiday in Turkey, which I expect to sit firmly on the quality general fiction shelves (positive thinking… see?).  In a beautiful setting, bad stuff happens.  It’s gritty, because I found I liked writing gritty stuff. I take a few of my characters on a day trip to Ephesus, but that’s about as cultural as my story gets. It isn’t the sort of story I imagine my mother selecting from the shelves at Waterstone’s.  Even so I understand why she wants to read it.  And I’m pleased – of course I’m pleased – that she’s not only interested, but keen to read it.

But it matters, what family think of you, and I think my writing might come as a surprise.  Actually, perhaps even a shock – at least in parts. So when my mother reads it – and this will happen –  I will await her response to the more visceral elements of the narrative with considerable apprehension.

Will she be nice about it?  Yes, she will, I know it.  She’s my mother, isn’t she? But I know myself, and I know that whatever she says, in whatever way (and it won’t be her fault) it will somehow be the wrong thing, and it will set me on a spiral of self-doubt and angst.  There’ll be something I find to fret about in the tone, or the words, or it will be that thing she doesn’t say, or perhaps a momentary hesitation, a seeking after the most appropriate descriptive.  It might be an ill-judged platitude. It could even be her fulsome, wholehearted praise; since even that will disturb me, because I won’t believe my story deserves this.  She can’t win and that has nothing to do with her, and everything – everything – to do with me.

So for now, I can’t, I just can’t.

It makes sense

Roses - Ece on Sovalye Fethiye TurkeyI’ve just returned from a trip to Turkey’s stunningly beautiful Lycian Coast. Whilst it was most definitely a holiday, I went, notebook in hand, to refresh my memory and inspire my senses. ‘My first novel’ – its working title, by the way, is Singled Out – is set in Turkey, along this same coastline and I was looking for fine detail.

I carry my writer’s notepad around with me whenever I go out. I occasionally jot odd things down – a few notes whilst I’m sitting in a coffee shop perhaps. It still feels a bit writerly and pretentious, but I expect it may feel more natural in time. Last week in Turkey things took a big leap forward. My notepad, smeared with suntan oil, became a sponge, soaking up my sensory experience, absorbing everything.

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I saw and smelled, tasted and touched, listened to and noticed . . . everything; from sea breezes and sunsets to frogs in a pond and fields of pomegranates; from breakfast buffets to sizzling sea bass; from buzzing mopeds to hissing sprinklers and barking dogs.

But here was the surprise. I’d expected this to be something of a chore, interrupting my lazy sunshine holiday like homework you have to finish before you go back to school after the summer break. But this conscious, purposeful sensory exposure enriched my vacation in a thousand ways I hadn’t expected. It heightened every sense, turned up the volume and sharpened the dazzling, vibrant panorama that is contemporary Turkey – a country I’ve grown to love over many years.

An Eye on London

London EyeAn old friend is visiting London from Atlanta over the coming days. She hosted me for a holiday several years ago and we toured the Orlando theme parks, Savannah (I remember ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ was my companion book of choice that week) and the beautiful South Carolina Coast.

She’s in London to work, but it’s my turn to host and we plan to snatch a couple of days to play tourist. It occurred to me that I haven’t played tourist in my own home town since I was a child, when I recall being forced to traipse the streets, exposing a succession of visiting American and Canadian relatives to the charms of the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and more.

This time, I’m looking forward to my couple of days as tourist guide. We’re set to visit a few places that I’m embarrassed to confess I haven’t yet experienced. You know when you live somewhere, you do your best to avoid the backpackers, not join their numbers. So unbelievably, I’ve never been on The London Eye, never stood in Shakespeare’s Globe, never crossed The Millennium Bridge and (shame of shames) never visited the Tate Modern.

All these deficits in my life experience will be rectified this week.

I expect we’ll also nose around market stalls, drink coffee at the riverside and find somewhere eclectic and absent of branding for our lunch. I’ll take my notepad and my camera, and I’ll scribble and snap relentlessly, to capture at least a small corner of London, seen through the eyes of a visitor.

The experience won’t be much use for my current novel, which is set in Turkey. But I’ve discovered I like this writing business, so there’ll probably be another one along later, and who knows, it might just involve old friends meeting in an unfamiliar city.