Food as a Writing Prompt

steaming hot coffee held by mittens

Look long enough, and you’ll feel the chill of the air and the heat of the drink in your hands.

You can’t use food as a writing prompt! Or can you? Hmmm… Food can be used for worldbuilding. It’s inspired the readers to recreate the dishes from books and movies (Did you check out the recipes from Studio Ghibli and Avatar: the Last Airbender or from the Harry Potter series and LOTR?). Heck, if people can find Jesus on a potato chip, then why can’t we find a scene or a character?

Ok, bad example.

Setting a Scene with Food and Sensory Language

Visions aside, if done well, food is something you experience rather than something that’s inhaled and forgotten. If it’s bad, on the other hand, forgetting it may be the best you can hope for. That’s why describing a food and the surrounding ambience can very quickly give the audience a strong impression of a situation (scary or otherwise). For this aspect, foods that inspire strong emotions or memories may be easiest to work with.

  1. Pick a food that you associate with a specific experience, situation, or person.
  2. Picture in your mind the feelings, setting, and flavors you associate with that food.
  3. Describe the scene using sensory language (language that appeals to 1 or more of the 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, or hearing).
  4. Analyze the mood created and use it to guide you to the next step of the plot.

Some foods have a comforting or cheerful association: hot cocoa after playing in the snow or a soothing glass of wine after a hard day at work. Foods can be used to comfort, to romance, or even to intimidate, but it’s the trappings that surround them and the way they appeal to the senses (or don’t) that does the most to establish that atmosphere.

Building Character with Food

In any culture, there are norms for what people eat. For example, a grizzled U.S. cop drinking coffee isn’t going to make anyone blink (it’s a stereotype thing). If the grizzled cop only drinks herbal tea and milk, however, that’s going to get the reader’s attention and show very quickly and easily that there is more to this cop than meets the eye. It’s also a useful way to establish amusing and interesting quirks that can endear the character to the readers (or do the opposite).

  1. Pick a stereotypical character.
  2. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to like/have tried.
  3. List what foods or types of foods that character would be expected to disdain.
  4. Decide what the character actually likes (it will most likely be some of each).
  5. Use those choices to help direct you as you develop the character.
    • Is he more sensitive than he seems?
    • Is he a health nut?
    • Does she have a deathly allergy that could come into play in the plot?
    • Does she love junk food?

It doesn’t really have to be a stereotypical character (That just makes the exercise easier.) – you can use the same techniques with anyone.

Want to make a character that annoys the reader? Make him/her a really picky eater – excessively so. One who likes to complain about every little thing that isn’t to his/her standards. Like a kid staying at his grandparents’ house and saying, “That’s not how Mom makes it!” Or like an adult who only eats things that are a specific color (it happens).

We have all sorts of associations with what people eat or how people eat. It’s really interesting. Open-mindedness to trying new foods. Or definitely not. Using herbs. Meat and potatoes cooks. Practically a gourmet chef. Expert baker. Able to burn water. Did each of those make you think of a specific person or people?

We’re around some kind of food every day of our lives (we hope). That means we have tons of memories tied to it. That’s a lot of story fodder!

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Thought-provoking Writing

Lord Byron Quote “But words are things, and a small drop of ink, Falling, like dew, upon a thought produces That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think.” George Gordon Byron

It makes you think (funny how that works).

For a quote about how writing is thought-provoking, this is pretty darn thought-provoking, which, I guess, proves his point. But we expect poetry to be thought-provoking. We don’t normally think of general fiction as thought-provoking. Oh, sure. Books like Animal Farm and 1984 were written to jar people’s perceptions. But those are classics. The books that people read most of the time, they’re written to entertain, not make you think, right?

Then, you start thinking about books you’ve read and how they’ve affected you.

  • Did Ender’s Game make you think about how we deal with bullying, how schools are set up, what makes an enemy, or even whether the end justifies the means?
  • Did The Lord of the Rings make you think about nations working together, about how greed corrupts, about trained prejudices, or perhaps about how trauma can have lingering affects?
  • Did any Stephen King book make you think about human frailty and powerlessness? Did it make you want to lock your doors while at the same time make locking them at all seem pointless? (But I digress)

Part of what makes a book great is its power to seem real when you read it. Even when set in a fantasy world or some futuristic society, there have to be elements that we can relate to. And any time there are elements of reality, there will be the potential for inspiring thought – whether or not that was the author’s intention at all.

But that’s good, right? After all, I don’t think it would hurt our society to think more. Do you?

What Do You Want in a Writing Resource?

what's next writing resource

Author interviews? Editor interviews? What would help you as a writer?

This is my question for you: What do you want in a writing resource? Or from a writing resource?

Let me give you a little backstory so you know where I’m coming from with this.

Words & Deeds started out as a writing blog  because blog articles said to write about what you know. Since writing about how to write is what I get paid to do, it seemed like the obvious choice – you know, branch out a little from work and get to do some of the fun things that bosses won’t let you try with school kids, that might be too challenging, or that don’t look so nice in black and white booklets (it’s a long list).

As the blog grew and people began to follow it, it began to evolve. At some point, I realized that I want to make this blog into a writing resource – something that writers can come to to get ideas or look something up and then go back to their work.

One problem: writing for writers is different from writing for people trying to learn to write. Writers already know (mostly, right?), so writing the same kinds of things I would for middle schoolers… seems a bit insulting. Is an article on the “loose” v. “lose” really helpful? Have you already had so many classes on symbolism that you’re sick of it?

I know they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can keep putting up writing prompts, inspirational quotes, and random writing thoughts for a long, long time. But I thought there might be more out there that people might want or could use.

So I’m putting the question out there – what do you want out of a writing resource? What would make this blog most useful to you? What’s missing?

You can answer in the comments or pm me. Either way, I’d love to hear your ideas.

Forensic Linguistics as Dialogue Research

it wasn't me i am innocent

Anyone watching the special on CBS about the JonBenet Ramsey case? I saw part of it, and to be honest, what caught my attention most as a writer was the forensic linguistic part. In the section I saw, they identified a line of testimony as a lie because the wording was too extreme – too much of a sales pitch. That made me think that forensic linguistics could be useful dialogue research.

Areas of Forensic Linguistics That Relate to Dialogue

Now, maybe, you’re an expert, but I’ve never heard of forensic linguistics before. So I Googled it. According to wikipedia. it’s applying linguistics to trials, crimes, etc. (blah blah blah). I could’ve guessed that much from context clues.

Don’t worry – “The Forensic Text Types” section was more useful, especially relating to writing and dialogue.

Emergency Calls

Since 9-1-1 calls are usually intense, time-sensitive situations, the types of things forensic linguists look for would be most useful under similar circumstances. And they’re mostly about analyzing (or revealing) the honesty or dishonesty of the caller (is the call real?).

Some signs that it may not be real include

  • delay/pauses between answers
  • sidestepping or hedging answers
  • really short answers
  • incomplete answers

Translating some of that into writing could be hard, but it could definitely useful if you need to make it seem like a character is lying. Focus on timing and willingness to give information.

Notes for Ransoms or Threats

This section makes me think of motivation. Only this has the challenge of figuring out the motivation of characters you’ve never met.

It seems that combined with the actual message, when a ransom note was written gives a pretty big clue about the motivation of the person writing it as well as the potential honesty. Which makes a lot of sense but isn’t something I would have thought of.

For example, if they wrote “the child is safe” before they ever took the child, that’s not trustworthy. Sure, they might’ve planned for the child to be safe, but who knows if the kidnapping went as planned? It’s an interesting thought-process to apply.

Another aspect that came up in the JonBenet case was the idea that the ransom note could have a mix of motivations because multiple people were writing it. In that case (according to the theory promoted on the show), a lie got more complicated because two many people were involved in planning it.

But even if the note was intended as a true ransom, having co-criminals with different priorities could result in a mixed impression for the police.

Suicide notes, death row statements, and social media are also listed as specific texts studied; however, at a glance, they appear less applicable without having very specific moments in the plot or doing further research.

That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, actually. As much as this topic seems intriguing, it also seems like the sort of topic that could take a lot of sifting through before you find the kernel of information that you can use. The only problem is I don’t know that for sure – it could be a goldmine of strategies and techniques for figuring out if someone is lying. Or other tidbits that could be really handy for writing dialogue that conveys a certain impression.

That leaves me feeling really conflicted. Do I take the risk, or do I make use of this much and move on. Is it Pandora’s box or a pirate’s treasure chest? If anyone decides to research this further, I’d love to know the answer.

A Writing Prompt for Animal Lovers

dog playing with a sprinkler

Imagine that that’s the neighbor’s dog, trying to take the sprinkler home with him.

You know what’s great about animals and plot twists? People are used to animals being unpredictable and impossible to reason with. That means that pet behavior can be used to add unexpected plot twists that still seem real and believable. If you’re an animal lover, you may enjoy this writing prompt – a brainstorming activity for exploring the ways animals can complicate a plot.

  1. Set up the situation: What is the character trying to do?
  2. Pick an animal: What type of animal is it? Is it a pet? Is it a wild animal? Is it from the circus/zoo?
  3. Brainstorm ways the animal can make it harder for the character to achieve his/her goal.

You’ll be surprised at how many ways there are, from the dramatic to the mundane. Here’s an example.

  1. Lydia and Davian rush to her house to get the disc with the secret information before the bad guys can.
  2. Lydia’s dog, Zeus, a 1-year-old chocolate lab
  3. Here are 3ish options:
    • They get to the house to discover that the bored, lonely lab has chewed his way out of his crate and destroyed the house. Now, they have to sort through the mess to try to find the disc. Even as they start digging, the bad guys pull up. (dun dun dunnnn)
    • They get there and grab the disc. Lydia goes to get the dog because it won’t be safe to come back to the house. At the same time, Davian goes out back to keep watch. In the instant the door is open, the dog rushes out. They end up chasing him down the road. Before they can get back to their car, the bad guys pull up, and Lydia and Davian can’t get back to their car.
    • Lydia and Davian go upstairs to get the disc and hear a car outside. The bad guys come inside the house. Lydia and Davian hide, but Lydia hears the bad guys threatening her dog because he won’t stop barking. She breaks cover to protect him. Both Lydia and Davian are captured. Or Lydia is captured and Davian has to rescue her. Or Davian sees Lydia about to break cover and does it instead, telling her to get the disc to so-in-so (You see where this is going.).

These are pretty mundane, obvious, and common examples (as far as the dog’s behavior), but they can go from a pet biting the bad guy to stealing something and running off. Or in a fantasy/sci fi world, the pet could have some unknown power and go on a rampage. You can make it as simple or as complicated as you want – at least for this exercise.

Here’s an example from a movie (spoiler alert):

  • In Treasure Planet, Morph is the alien equivalent of the pirate’s parrot. He’s a little pink blob who can change his shape into anything and likes to parrot what people say. At a key moment of conflict, he steals the map from the main character, Jim Hawkins (Not to cause any trouble – to Morph, it’s an innocent game.), and when forced to choose between Jim and Silver, Morph hides the map in a bundle of rope. Jim gets it first, escapes, and discovers too late that he actually grabbed Morph who had transformed into the map – the real map was back on the ship. It’s a pretty useful plot complication, and it was made possible by a simple, believable action by a pet.

If you play with it a bit, I’m sure you’ll come up with great ways to use pets to complicate the plot. You might even be able to draw from personal experience – I know I will!

Pets as Characterization: If a Character Kicks a Puppy…

cute kitten on bed petsThis may be a U.S. thing (Although, judging from the lolcat mania online, it’s more widespread.), but people here are seriously obsessed with their pets.  They treat their pets like their children or even better than their children (Let’s pretend the second comment was a joke.). They also judge other people by their reactions to pets, which makes pet interaction a kind of instant characterization.

Establish Characterization with the Way a Character Treats Animals

Let’s say you’re in a hurry, and you need the audience to become attached to a character really quickly. You know, make a snap judgment that this character is a good person and someone you want to read more about. Simple solution: have that character be nice to a pet.

  • Helping someone’s cat out of a tree (Though why the cat needs help is beyond me)
  • Telling kids not to tap the glass of a fish tank (Like Harry Potter apologizing to the snake)
  • Giving a dog a treat
  • Petting/acknowledging a pet in a shop
  • Taking the time to protect an animal during a fight with the bad guy

Any sort of kindness/warmth towards an animal is a kind of instant good-guy characterization. Which means that any sort of meanness/coldness towards an animal is instant bad-guy characterization. Or at least makes the character less likable.

  • Kicking a puppy
  • Drowning a sack of baby animals (I don’t know where this imagery started, but its prevalence is fairly disturbing.)
  • Skinning/torturing animals (Peter in Ender’s Game, anyone?)
  • Ignoring an animal in need
  • Simply ignoring an animal (not petting it? How rude!)

Yeah, the last one’s pretty mild in comparison to the others. Clearly, there are all levels of behavior on either side of the scale with this characterization method. The more extreme the behavior, the more evil/good the character will appear. Although going really extreme (in either direction) also makes the character appear mentally unbalanced, as well. (Crazy cat lady, anyone?)

Establish Characterization with the Way Animals React to a Character

There’s also the flip side – how the animal(s) react to the character. Plenty of people use their pets as geiger counters for character. If the pet likes the person, the person’s probably ok (like Appa liking Zuko). If the pet doesn’t like a person, that person may not be as nice as we thought. While in reality it’s not the most scientific (or necessarily reliable) method for telling if someone is good or bad, it’s either really common among people or simply a well-established trope.

You may have read it in books as a kind of combination hindsight and foreshadowing:

            “Huh, Spot really likes you.”
            “Is that so unusual?”
            “He peed on my last boyfriend.”

It can also be a play on the way animals sense certain natural disasters before people do. When all the animals tremble and cower every time a seemingly harmless character goes by, it’s an obvious hint that that character is pretty scary/powerful (The dogs in the pound and their reaction to Stitch for instance).

Again, you can flip that. If all the animals flock to a character that looks scary and bad, then he/she must be ok. Beast covered with birds is a prime example of this, and Disney made use of that characterization to create an epiphany moment for Belle.

One of the best parts of this tactic is that it works in any genre and with most demographics. Sure, there will always be exceptions, but there are plenty of people who take how someone treats an animal as gospel proof of his/her character: good or bad.

So if you need a quick way to establish characterization, throw a pet into the mix. You may be surprised at how easily it makes people take sides.

Who Talks Like That? Book Nerds

A while ago, I talked about how people don’t really talk the way characters do in books. It’s true – mostly. One major exception is people without a lot of experience talking in the real world. People who learned their speech patterns from reading instead of actual social interaction. So if you read something and think, “Who talks like that?” The answer is book nerds. A.K.A. people like me.

So if you’re trying to establish characterization through dialogue for a scholarly-type, you may actually want the character to talk the way people do in books. Here’s a few traits to keep in mind:

  • Proper grammar: It is I. To whom am I speaking? 
  • An extensive vocabulary: I was being facetious. Can we mitigate that?
  • Out-dated words/slang/sayings/politeness: My apologies. Do tell. That’s the bees knees! Would that it were. Huzzah!
  • Jargon (from whatever genre): Oooh, nice alliteration! He did 5 pirouettes, but his spotting was all over the place. Toss it with the dead men.

And, as usual, that list isn’t universal. Depending on the reading habits, a person could pick up some unusual speaking habits but not others. If the person reads a lot of British writing, for example, he or she might start using British slang, speech patterns, or even spellings (I’ve been spelling “color” as “colour” ever since I read The Hobbit as a kid.). Someone who reads books set in the bayou might say things like “cher,” and someone who reads a lot of Shakespeare might say things like “forsooth.” So there’s plenty of room to adjust for what your character’s really into.

People can also lose these habits as they socialize more.

Ever notice how you pick up speech habits from people around you? (I’ve recently realized that I’ve started to use “dude” too much when I’m talking, and I know exactly which friend to blame that on.) If the character makes friends who follow trends, that character is going to end up learning more up-to-date sayings and slang. If the character makes friends who are into medieval history, the vocabulary is going to change in an entirely different way. And that’s not even including the special slang and inside jokes used within a group.

Another interesting fact to consider is that people can also revert to old learned behaviors.

New habits aren’t as powerful as old ones – they’re not as ingrained. And when people are uncomfortable with a situation, they tend to go back to whatever feels most natural or safe to them. That’s usually the way of talking they’ve done the longest. What they learned first. That means that if your character is a book nerd turned social butterfly, her conversation might change drastically when she gets flustered. Or he (whatever).

Lots of books have characters who speak with a stronger accent, change languages, or start speaking scientifically when they’re nervous. It’s a common human trait.

Personally, I tend to go in and out of a lot of different speech patterns (and dialects) depending on where I am, what I’m talking about, and who’s around me. That might be a writer thing (or a theatre thing). After all, the downside to studying dialogue is that all the options get lodged in your head, and you never know which one is going to come out. Honestly, I think most people do that do a lesser degree, but it can be very interesting to write a character who is aware of that.

Imagine that you’re writing a 1st-person narrative, and the main character started out as a book nerd but has since learned to talk more normally. Wouldn’t the way the character thinks be more like the way he/she first learned to talk? And wouldn’t the dialogue require a kind of translation?

That could be really interesting. It has a lot of potential for humor, too – I’m picturing the character thinking something ridiculous like “Oh, no! I befouled the air,” and then making fun of himself for not simply thinking, “I farted.”

I’m probably too amused by these things, but, hey, I’m a logophile with a love of drama, dialogues, and dialect (and alliteration). It’s what I do. I think it’s what most writers do. I guess that means our books could influence the speech patterns of a whole new generation of book nerds.

Uh-oh.

Plain Speaking Doesn’t Mean Honest

Honest Tale Plainly Told William Shakespeare Richard III

See “Get on with it.”

In our culture, there’s an automatic assumption that plain speaking means someone is being honest. Surely, no one would be that blunt (A.K.A. rude) unless they meant what they were saying! Nope. Just like roundabout speaking doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lying, plain speaking doesn’t mean honest.

Other Reasons for Plain Speaking

  1. Lying: People think that people who are blunt are honest, right? Let say someone wants to lie to you, but he doesn’t want to get caught. One easy way to trick you into believing him is to be so blunt that you assume he’s telling the truth. As long as no one’s too offended by that bluntness, he’s not losing anything.
    • Manipulation: A big reason to lie to people is to manipulate them. Plain speaking is good for that, especially when you’re trying to piss someone off or calm them down.
      • You see this in stories when the characters need to piss someone off as part of a distraction or strategic fight. They figure out the person’s weakness, and then bluntly point it out to them. Do they have to mean what they say? Nope. But plain speaking can be very efficient for making people mad.
      • Same for calming someone down in an emergency situation. Tell them something they want to believe in a calm, straightforward manner, and there’s a good chance they’ll think you’re telling the truth.
  2. Nerves: When some people are nervous, they blurt out the first thing they don’t even remember thinking. Things they definitely don’t mean. It’s a knee-jerk reaction from adrenaline. It’s like it short-circuits the brain.
  3. Anger: Ever get in a fight and straight-out tell someone something you know they’ll hate, true or not? It’s because when people are mad and fighting, they don’t care about the truth – they care about winning and getting in an equal number of hits.
  4. Humor: It’s the art of the unexpected. Being blunt is a great way to surprise people, and if the plain speaking involves something outrageous, all the better.

Reasons for Honest Circumlocution

  1. Nerves: Some people say short, dishonest things. Other people babble. Let’s get real. Add a little babbling, and you can speak paragraphs of a truth that would normally fit in 3 words.
  2. Politeness: Don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or offend somebody? Well, you can either lie or try to put the truth in the nicest possible way. See “political correctness” (A.K.A. an ever-changing set of rules that give people excuses to yell at you).
  3. Impact: Sometimes, people want to make an impression. They want to sound smarter, more professional, whatever, so what do they do? They use as many big words and phrases as possible. Maybe, it’s from reading too many math books or old texts in school. I don’t know.
  4. Ambiguity: Legalese, misdirection, or manipulation – sometimes, a character may not want to tell someone the truth in an easily-defined way. In legalese, deliberate vagueness is a way of covering situations that the writer didn’t think of (They hope.). In art, it’s a way of leaving the creation open to interpretation. In fiction, a character may be physically unable to lie yet doesn’t want to give up friends to the bad guy (Like Pinocchio in Shrek 3).

In short (ha), there are plenty of different ways to tell the truth, and there are ways to use plain speaking to be dishonest. And since writers don’t have to tell honest tales, you can use as many of these options with your characters as fits your story (Admit it – that’s a lot happier than thinking of the real-life applications!).