Sunday, January 13, 2008


HALLIE: Eyeliner reveals character. It's all in the details. Put a character on the page wearing frayed cutoffs and flip-flops, her hair pulled back in a red plaid scrunchy, and you've got a very different vibe going from a character in pencil thin pants, gold stiletto sandals, her hair cut short and spikey. Pick the telling detail and you don't have to "tell" the reader a thing.

Food can do the same thing. One character gets depressed, she polishes off a half-dozen Godiva truffles, another character fights the blues with a box of Ritz crackers slathered in Peter Pan peanut butter.

So what do the foods you have them eat say about your characters...and you?

ROBERTA: Cassie Burdette, the protagonist in my golf mysteries, never did learn to eat well. Or to cook. Tons of readers commented on the junk food, the fried food, the hamburgers, the beer. The only recipe she was ever quoted as cooking had canned beans and sliced hot dogs as its main ingredients. Her eating style definitely reflected her youth and a self-destructive tendency.

My advice columnist character, Dr. Rebecca Butterman, is a gourmet cook who uses food and cooking to calm herself down, help herself think, and overcome any incoming bad news. My husband is pleased that she's brought my standard of cooking up quite a bit too! I have to try out new recipes in order to write about them, right?

JAN:I love to cook and am always trying out new recipes, but I never eat when I'm nervous. My protaganist Hallie Ahern is usually under a lot of pressure as the story closes in around her, so rarely does she eat. In fact, in a version of an early book, one of my editor/readers commented that Hallie almost seemed anorexic, so I had to go back and give her a meal or two. Now that she's got her life together a bit more, she eats better. But since her character is still single-minded and career driven, usually her boyfriend Matt cooks. Left on her own, she often eats a buttered Pop Tart for dinner.

I chose Pop-Tarts both because I love them(brown sugar cinnamon) and because as a main course, they show a certain recklessness.

HANK: Oh, I love brown sugar cinnamon pop tarts, but I don't eat them anymore. Sigh. Neither does Charlie McNally. Co, um, incidentally, Charlie is kind of calmly obsessed about her eating. And it's built in to her TV reporter job, because TV does indeed add ten pounds. So there are scenes where she extracts croutons from a salad, and eats a hamburger without the bun. And of course she lives on coffee.

Once, though, I had written myself into a corner. There needed to be some tension, but low-level, you know? Personal. So I made Charlie really really really hungry. Then as I went back into the chapter, I realized I had already tucked in several times when she ALMOST got to have a turkey sandwich without the bread, ALMOST got to have an apple, ALMOST got to have low-carb lasagne. And she wound up eating a fistful of almonds in the car. And that was a fun way of introducing her eating habits and her work habits at the same time. I deliberately had her producer, Franklin, be able to eat anything. And what's more, he eats it very neatly. Franklin eats onion rings with a fork. And his fried clam roll doesn't leak. Charlie is more prone to drip balsamic vinaigrette on her blouse. She eats in a hurry. So even how food behaves can be illustrative. And how and when someone *doesn't* eat.

Okay, now I'm hungry.
HALLIE: Food is also a great stand-in for sex. But that's another column...


  1. "One character gets depressed, she polishes off a half-dozen Godiva truffles."


    ::raises hand::

    -=Susannah "pray-have-another-thank-you-I-will" Charleson

  2. Many of my readers have commented about the Black Widows' affection for confections - the chocolate kind, that is. From their trademark chocolate black widow spiders to the chocolate genoise cake that Margo whips up at the end of a successful case - it is their celebration and their salvation... As it is, as it always shall be. Amen.

  3. I have a kind of sideways-related question. In my first Orchard book, people keep dropping in on my protagonist. Every time someone shows up at the door, she feels compelled to offer them coffee. There are a lot of callers, therefore a lot of coffee. Finally she offers one of them a bowl of oatmeal instead (hey, it's breakfast time).

    Good editing would dictate that I cut a number of the "want a cup of coffee?" references, but it seems rude not to offer a visitor something. Is there a good solution?

  4. Hi Sheila,

    Sometimes repetition can produce humor especially if your character is aware of the repetition. But if you don't want humor in a scene, you could summarize or paraphrase instead of actually quoting your character offering the coffee. IE. After the coffee ritual was over,(the protaganist) asked her.... etc. Or after the third of fourth guest arrives, "after they were all settled with cup of coffee......"

    Hope that helps!

  5. Yup, I agree with Jan. (As always) Is she the kind of person who would think to herself--what am I, a short order cook?

    Or just tuck it. Like "Cream?" I asked, for the millionth time.

    Or--someone could come in already carrying coffee (or whatever, a bottle of water.) Turning the tables. Or even bringing her some coffee!

    xo Hank

  6. When my MC (a 12-year-old boy)'s dad comes to visit, they whip up their specialty: BLTCO sandwiches (Bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, melted cheese, and fried onions). The goopier the better. His much more cautious cousin, of course, asks for plain grilled cheese, please. Joel gets burritos with everything, the hotter the salsa the better, Victoria just gets bean. I love playing with the differences between them, especially because I'm much more like Victoria, so it's fun to make Joel as out there as possible!

    I have to ask, being a lifetime poptart fan--do you put the butter on COLD, or after you toast the poptart, so it melts?

  7. Oh, butter on PopTarts? I've never done that.

    Gotta go home and try it..

    But speaking of grilled cheese? Butter on the bread? Or butter in the pan?

  8. You put the butter on the PopTart AFTER it's toasted, so the butter melts into the pastry. Everyone knows there just isn't enough fat content in PopTarts alone. (look at the side of the box and you'll freak).
    I don't do it anymore, but I like to think of it as the proper way to eat PopTarts.

  9. Okay, melted butter on poptarts--definitely going to have to try it. It helps slow down the sugar absorption, right, so there's less of a crash? :)

    Butter in the pan AND on the bread, Hank!

  10. That's why M & M peanuts are healthy, because they have the protein of the peanut, as well as the vegetable of the cocoa bean.

  11. Having spent the last four days in a hotel in Philly - and attacking the minibar - I'm so relieved to learn there is some nutritional value to M&M peanuts.

    My character, Paula Holliday, moves from the big city to the suburbs. At the beginning of the book her eating habits are practically monastic as she is still living the you-can't-be-too-thin and you-must-always-wear-black lifestyle. As the book progresses she lightens up a bit. By book six she'll probably be eating blooming onions. I read somewhere they have over 1000 calories in them. Anyone know? Hank?

  12. Okay, this is such a coincidence. But I just read an article about this--I think in Foreign Affairs, or it might have been in The Economist--that a blooming onion has 2210 calories.

    I know I should check that on Snopes, because I don't see how that's possible.

    Anyone know this?

  13. Blooming Onions? Are we talking about those deep fried onions that you can order at Chili's? If so, 2210 calories makes sense. They are probably deep fried in bacon drippings.
    Not even tempted. I actually don't like fried food. It makes my stomach hurt. I save all my calories for pure butter, preferably on Pop Tarts.

  14. Fried food makes my stomach hurt, too, but I still love it. My mom used to make fried matzo, in the days when she still kept a can of chicken fat in the freezer. Let me tell you, it's just NOT the same in olive oil!

    It's a good thing I live in California, not the south, because I'd be snacking all the time on fried chicken, fried alligator, and fried pickles.

    Hey, maybe I can set a book there someday & have to go for research...

  15. A good friend of mine has to go to Mississippi all the times on business. She's not normally a fried food person, but she and her colleagues have made a game out of trying all of it. Fried Pickles. Fried cake. Fried pie. Fried (as in breaded and deep fried)bacon. Everytime, she comes back, she relates more examples of weird fried things.I really don't like fried food, but I still want to go to Mississippi and try it.
    My friend is true northerner, but she's come to love Mississippi.

  16. Isn't there a restaurant in Boston that makes deep-fried Twinkies?
    Deep fried Twinkies! Talk about redundant.
    Then they put chocolate sauce on them. Just in case they're not oozing enough calories.

  17. Deep fried chocolate covered twinkies? Oh, baby, they're calling my name. (And, of course, they'll land on my ass.) I am another brown-sugar cinnamon pop-tart afficionado--I even toast them until they're a bit too done--the frosted ones get that yummy burnt sugar taste.

    Hmm, perhaps I'm sharing too much here.

  18. Come to the Texas State Fair! They deep-fry everything here. Twinkies,pickles, Oreos, jalapenos. (There's even a deep-fried Dr. Pepper thing here: nuts!)

    I have to say a character named Rebecca Butterman just sounds like she would eat well. She was having a whole lotta soup in the last book I read -- homemade soup, which sounded fabulous.


  19. I had a blooming onion once about eight years ago..and it's still repeating on me. And at 2210 calories, I'm probably still wearing some of it on hips. Have any of you checked out the LCC youtube video? Roberta and I are on it..since we're registered. It's fun...

  20. Okay, who's going to set up the writers conference in Texas, the one that's at the same time as the fair?!

  21. I've always wanted to go to Texas.......

  22. I'll get right on that September/October conference. (Hey, there are a couple of SinC chapters in the area -- gotta be a goodly number of folk who love the genre and are willing to Become One With Fried Twinkies.)

    And then I could take ye all out for the best barbecue in the world. And Billy Bob's Honkytonk, home of Debra Winger's naughty bullride in Urban Cowboy.

    -=Susannah 'ye haw' Charleson

  23. That is a very cool video! How do people have time to do all that???

    As for Barbeque, I always have time for barbeque...I like it all, North Carolina style with vinegar and hot sauce...mmm, mmm, I'm getting hungry...

  24. Fried pickles, man, I haven't thought about them in a long time. Salty, crunchy... what's not to like?