Sunday, April 22, 2012

Fusion Food and Dialog

RHYS BOWEN: It's Sunday and we usually reserve today for writing tips or blogs about food. I'm going to combine both today. My son recently went to a restaurant called, if I remember correctly, Chopsticks and Chapattis. He thought that Chinese/Indian fusion food might be an interesting experiment.  He looked at the menu and decided on the Cumin Lamb. His dialog with the waitress went like this:
Son: This cumin lamb sounds good. Tell me about it.
Waitress: Well. It is lamb.  With cumin.
Son: So how exactly is it prepared?
Waitress: You take the lamb... and put some cumin on it.
Son: And?
Waitress: And then you cook it.

That would make a terrific scene in a funny movie, wouldn 't it?
But I'm trying to prove a point here. I want to show what real life dialog is like. We don't speak in long, expressive sentences. One of the mistakes that new writers make (and some old writers too) is making the dialog unrealistically eloquent. In the real world we break apart sentences, interrupt, stop to think. Of course we can't make speech exactly true to life... or it would be full of fillers like "like" and "y-know", but it should give the impression of real life.

Another pointer that this dialog illustrates is: make sure we know who is talking. Too often, especially in opening chapters, we have characters chatting away madly and we really don't know who we are listening to. (or should that be to whom we are listening?)

In this dialog the waitress has a distinctive voice and also an Indian accent, but I can only hint at that by the way she breaks up her sentences, but you get a good impression of her from these few lines of speech. So close your eyes. Have someone read dialog out loud and see if you get a feel for each person speaking. Also notice from that small speech how conversation flows back and forth, like a tennis match. One person does not hold the stage for long speeches.

I set my mysteries in the past and dialog is a great tool to take us back to a place and time. My characters really do express themselves in long, eloquent sentences. People in those days had more time and much bigger vocabularies. I base Molly Murphy's speech on that of my great aunts who read extensively and didn't hesitate to use big words in their every day speech (they were, after all, from a generation who gave us words like Perambulator for a baby buggy and Omnibus for that big red thing.) Also they considered words like damn and hell swearing. A man would apologize if he used such words in a lady's presence.

I don't know how we got from Asian fusion to Edwardian novels If anyone has tried good Chinese/Indian fusion, do let me know.
But a last word of warning... if a restaurant is called anything like Chopsticks and Chapattis, run away as fast as you can.


  1. No Rhys, But I've was stunned by the excellence of a fusion restaurant that mixed - now get ready -- Down Home southern Barbeque with Asian.

    Fatty Que - I went to the one in Brooklyn but I know they have a few throughout the NYC.

    Question: Do you find that in dialogue that you have to give "just a hint" of the way they spoke, and not the whole rendition? I'm looking at the way women spoke in the 1850s - and feel if I gave a complete rendering, it would turn people off.

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  3. True story--I covered a hot-air balloon race in the hills of north Georgia--and one end of the race wa in Helen, Georgia.

    Helen had been transformed into a sort of Bavarian Alp-ish kind of place, with all kinds of German-sounding attractions and restaurants.

    There was one restaurant where you could get Mexican food--it looked like a chalet, but it was called: TACO HAUS.

  4. Oh, Hank. Taco Haus. ¡Ein Bayern fiesta! ¿No?

  5. Rhys, I didn't know what fusion food was until I read this blog. This explains a lot! I thought it had something to do with dinner music. Like, in our local chain doughnut shop in California that played Chinese-language rock music while you ate your maple walnut cruller. We went back for a visit over the holidays last year, and they were selling Chinese takeout along with the doughnuts.

    Thank you for clearing up the mystery. Here is an article I found in the Atlantic, complete with slideshow of Chinese takeout and doughnut shop mystery in SoCal:

  6. Give just a hint of the way people spoke Jan? Absolutely. When I started Murphy's Law I knew I couldn't write Irish dialect without annoying people. No begorrahs but I tried to bring in Irish cadence. Readers want the story to flow without being conscious of the words.

    And one of my captcha words is "departi" is that the dialog of a witty dead person?

  7. Rhys, yes... where have all the big words gone? I remember my Uncle Happy talking about trout procrypticism while fishing. Then one of my aunts would tell him to shush and stop being so pedantic. What happened?

  8. People had time, Reine. They had whole evenings with no TV to discuss things, to write letters describing scenery, to read poetry or Dickens to each other. Words were important to them.

  9. Thanks, Rhys. And thank you to all my aunts and uncles for reading books and valuing words.

  10. When we lived in NY we ate all the time at Cuban/Chinese restaurants. The owners were typically Cubans who'd escaped by way of China before coming to the US. We always ate Cuban, and fortunately they didn't try to mix the cuisines.

  11. The conversation here the last two days has been about food. It looks like the conversation stirred up cyberspace's hunger, and so cyberspace "ate" the reply I posted at 2:45 or thereabouts! And I had such easy captcha words!

    To repeat (sort of):in the late 80s and early 90s I worked in one of the larger cities in CT. There was a small space a few blocks away from my office that was occupied by one takeout restaurant after another. I don't think any business lasted there more than a few months. There had been a donut shop,a pizza place,a Chinese restaurant,etc. The business that was my favorite - I think that particular owner tried really hard to come up with a concept that would appeal to as many people as possible - was Uncle Abdul's Middle Eastern Pizza and Italian Deli.

  12. Deb, I'm sure your comments were delicious.

  13. Rhys, in Kansas City, we have a restaurant the offers Spanish (not Mexican) food--paella, tapas--and Italian food--eggplant parmigiana, chicken spidini. The food of both kinds is absolutely top-notch. i never would have believed it if i hadn't tasted it.

    Then there's a Chinese buffet that's owned and operated by a Mexican family. Good Chinese food, too. Recently, they've started offering Mexican food next to the Chinese. Who'da thunk?

  14. Oh,Linda, what you said reminded me that the food court at our mall has a Texas barbecue place run by a Chinese family, and they feature many Chinese offerings in addition to all the barbecue stuff. Because of the appearance and aroma of much of the food,I was somewhat surprised when I realized it was a barbcue place!

    Keeping you in my thoughts for Tuesday,and I can't wait to receive my copy of your book!