Writing Excuses 11.Bonus-04: Fantasy Food, with Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch
Key points: Food engages readers. It contains worldbuilding, economics, trade routes, and many other interesting points. Potatoes! Don’t forget the peasants. Who eats beef? Think about the logistics. How long does it take to cook, what are the ingredients, who eats it? Think about the health consequences. Oysters and lobsters. Characters’ reactions are more interesting than what they are actually putting in their faces. Don’t forget the potatoes!
[Howard] Season 11. Bonus Episode 4.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Fantasy Food.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because I’m hungry.
[Dan] And I’m also hungry.
[Howard] We are joined by Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear who I had dinner with last night. It was a pretty good dinner.
[Dan] Was it fantasy?
[Howard] It was… No.
[Elizabeth] It was fantastic.
[Scott] It was.
[Howard] It was quite tasty. It was not actually inspiration for this topic, but I’m going to pretend it was.
[Scott] Good job, Howard.
[Dan] I’m actually excited to be talking about this, because when I read Republic of Thieves, there’s… The two main characters go on a date and they eat this thing that was like a giant baked turtle full of seafood or something, and I thought that sounded like the most delicious thing and I want it now.
[Scott] Well, you can’t have it because it’s chock-full of things that do not exist, like the translucent mushrooms and the magic fi… No, sorry, it just doesn’t exist.
[Dan] Yeah, I know.
[Elizabeth] As opposed to the magic mushrooms and the translucent fish which you could get.
[Scott] Not translucent fish. They can get that at Arby’s.
[Dan] In a broader sense…
[Elizabeth] Maybe in 1965.
[Dan] That book and a lot of your work is full of interesting foods that are so much better than the standard hearty beef stew with crusty bread that we tend to get so much.
[Scott] They ate the stew.
[Dan] Yeah, in fantasy.
[Scott] They cooked it for all of two minutes. They stuck a deer’s ass in a pot and they had stew. Yes, that whole thing.
[Elizabeth] I like how this is turning into all of the delicious recipes in Scott’s books. But nobody ever talks about the time when I roasted a marmot.
[Scott] Oh, it’s Elizabeth’s marmot. Yes, yes.
[Dan] I was just about to mention…
[Scott] That is a thing that you did.
[Dan] This one time when Elizabeth roasted a marmot.
[Elizabeth] Only a fictional marmot.
[Scott] Well, yeah, because I have delicious…
[Elizabeth] Nobody asks me anything else.
[Scott] Layers of flaky pastry crust and truffles and fish and goulash and ragu and you’re like, “Well, I stuck a stick up a marmot’s butt and put it on a fire…”
[Elizabeth] That is not how you roast a marmot.
[Scott] How do you roast…
[Howard] We can just let them go. Let me…
[Elizabeth] I did extensive research on how you roast marmots.
[Scott] Well, shit, share it with us. Why’m aye tawkin lahk this? This has nothing to do with marmots.
[Dan] We need to retitle the episode. Arguing about fantasy food with Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear.
[Howard] Let me bring this…
[Elizabeth] It has nothing to do with marmots.
[Howard] Let me bring this back on point, real quick. We talk a lot, when we want to engage the reader, about engaging all the senses. I think the reason that foods are important is that for the most part, all of us eat. When you are telling us about food, when you are telling us… I suppose there are some people…
[Scott] For the most part?
[Howard] There’s intravenous whatever… That doesn’t go through the mouth.
[Elizabeth] Also, many of us are food motivated…
[Howard] A great many of us. The salient point here though is that that engages a sense that if you don’t talk about food just doesn’t get engaged, and there’s a piece missing that we could be using to explore how these characters feel about things.
[Elizabeth] Food also contains in it economics and social status and character preference and just trade routes and world building and an enormous number of different useful things for both the writer and the writer’s audience. If I’m writing a character in an analog of Southeast Asia, for example, and they’re eating potatoes, there’s an interesting question there as to how that trade route from… If we’re not talking about a modern world, obviously, if we’re talking about a traditional…
[Scott] From Peru.
[Elizabeth] Right. How are the potatoes getting from not-Peru to not-Korea?
[Elizabeth] Then you have a whole bunch of…
[Scott] You’ve been on this potato kick all day, love. You’re like, every panel, like, “Tell me about the potatoes.”
[Elizabeth] Nothing external to the podcast exists, Scott.
[Elizabeth] We are in a bubble.
[Scott] That’s true. We just appeared here 15 minutes ago when Howard Tayler… It’s like a Star Trek episode, like, “Welcome to the bubble. Howard Tayler will now ask you questions.”
[Elizabeth] Scott is derail-ege.
[Dan] Side note. That’s a Star Trek episode I really want to see.
[Dan] He would have a cellular peptide cake in it.
[Elizabeth] Yeah, he would. With McFrosting.
[Dan] With McFrosting.
[Scott] It’s the podcasters again, Captain. Turn us around, warp nine.
[Howard] They’re in the holodeck. [echo] They’re in the holodeck.
[Scott] Oh, good. It’ll go wrong and kill them in about 30 minutes.
[Elizabeth] They’re always… Why don’t these things have safety interlocks? My God. And OSHA in fantasy is another podcast entirely.
[Scott] Star Trek is a dystopic timeline where humanity forgot gloves, respirators, seatbelts, fuses… Handrails.
[Elizabeth] Sweetie, we’re talking about recipes.
[Scott] I’m sorry. I was a firefighter for 11 years. I took hazmat class so very often. Handrails are also very important in fantasy and science fiction.
[Scott] So many stormtroopers would still be alive. Hey, I’m sorry. Potatoes.
[Elizabeth] Meanwhile, back in the serious portion of the podcast. You see, you have an entire like worldbuilding element with that trade route, how that stuff is working, how those people are getting from point A to point B across the entire Pacific Ocean, how that affects the economies, how that affects your society. It doesn’t all have to be spelled out. But… I mean, one of the things we really forget as fantasy writers is economics. I mean, where are all the peasants?
[Scott] They were delicious.
[Elizabeth] Peasants make food…
[Elizabeth] Okay. Fair.
[Elizabeth] [garbled] We tend to write fantasy a lot about the nobility or the warlord class, people who are out there fighting wars and eating banquets. Who’s… Where are all the people who are growing the food on the table?
[Howard] I watched a documentary… A series of documentaries, I think it was called Filthy Cities. It was talking about, I think, 13th century London.
[Howard] They described how the royalty, king and queen and company… Beef! All about the beef. The nobility moved nearby. They also wanted beef. The way to get the beef was to march it across the bridge and murder it in town. The streets flowed with blood and cow entrails and filth. That’s not the London you think of when you are thinking of these banquets.
[Elizabeth] They call it a shambles for a reason.
[Howard] That whole discussion, I realized that our predilection for beef only survives because we’ve got refrigeration and fast transportation. These were things that… Or these maybe things that your fantasy world just does not have.
[Dan] I just did a lot of research… I’m writing a western and I figured, “Oh, Texas. Western. Obviously they’re eating beef, right?” They don’t. Beef is so much more valuable to sell it than to kill it and eat it yourself. So all of the beef farmers ate pork almost exclusively.
[Scott] I did a lot of… Primary research sources for my… [Garbled] my next book is set in the same Renaissance/Elizabethan level of technology world that my previous Locke Lamora books are. But my primary source for information was diaries of US soldiers during the Civil War. Because I was looking for information on soldiers marching by day, how far they could go, what the experience was like, how miserable it was, stuff about the preservation of meat and bread and so on and so forth. It was really interesting. Discovering that one of the camp pastimes of Union soldiers in the Civil War… Apparently the beef carcasses that they would receive from the War Department were so incredibly awful that to amuse themselves, they would have mock funerals for their beef ration.
[Scott] They would all get together and say a eulogy over the beef before they boiled it for eight hours. This was like a combination of entertainment to pass the time and commentary on how awful the victuals were.
[Elizabeth] There are actual legitimate examples of Civil War hardtack still in existence.
[Scott] There’s a guy on YouTube actually who will eat a Civil War cracker for you. It tastes like mothballs. You do not need to do this yourself.
[Elizabeth] You can go to a museum and see actual Civil War hardtack unpreserved. It’s just still there.
[Scott] It will be there long after we are.
[Elizabeth] After the nuclear war. Cockroaches and Civil War hardtack.
[Dan] Well, and McDonald’s fries.
[Elizabeth] And Twinkies.
[Dan] That was part of their documentary where they talked about fast food. They took several different hamburgers and fries and put them in… And just watched how they decomposed over time. The fries did not. Months later, they were pristine.
[Scott] Oh, we’re back to potatoes.
[Dan] We need to break here for a book of the week from Elizabeth. What have you got for us?
[Elizabeth] My book of the week is Karen Memory, which is my most recent novel. It is a Weird West steampunk adventure novel starring heroic saloon girls versus disaster capitalists set in an analog of the late 19th century gold rush Pacific Northwest. If you think of it as Leverage with bad ass hookers, you won’t be far wrong.
[Scott] Also, potatoes.
[Elizabeth] Yeah, actually there are some.
[Dan] There are more intriguing ideas in your book pitch alone than in some entire novels I have read. So…
[Elizabeth] Also, there’s a giant sewing machine mecha.
[Scott] She’s not kidding. Yes.
[Howard] Now there’s more than some of the novels he’s written.
[Dan] So. That is called Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Go out and buy it and read it right now.
[Scott] Right now.
[Dan] Right now. We’ll wait.
[Elizabeth] There is an Audible version narrated by Jennifer Grace, who is amazing and does… I was writing this folksy character voice because it’s a first-person novel and, oh my God, she makes it so much better than I did. Like… Anyway, buy that version.
[Scott] I love how we… What you missed…
[Elizabeth] There was flailing.
[Scott] Podcast listeners, was the hands-y flailing. I love how we nod and wave our hands and do all kinds of gestures. I don’t think they can hear us.
[Elizabeth] You could not hear my Kermit flail, but there was a Kermit flail.
[Dan] Fantastic. So. Let’s give some advice for our aspiring writers in the audience. If they want to put interesting food into their stories, what do they need to think about? What do they need to do?
[Elizabeth] Logistics. I mean, think about the cooking logistics. I think that’s the most important thing. Diana Wynne Jones has this rant about stew and why stew is a stupid thing to eat when you’re on a long fantasy quest because stew takes all day to cook. You don’t like walk 20 miles and then make stew, because first of all, you don’t have any fresh meat, and second of all, you’re not going to cook it for eight hours. I mean, you might like stick it in the coals overnight and have it for breakfast, but it’s not dinner. So, anyway. Think about the logistics. Actually try cooking some things, maybe.
[Howard] That’s probably a good start. The issue with stew… Well, it takes a long time to cook and it takes ingredients that are difficult to acquire. What if you had a cooking method, like perhaps maybe how they make ceviche where it does need to cook for a long time, but it can cook while you carry it?
[Elizabeth] Sure. Oh, my God. Fantasy worldbuilding.
[Howard] That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You take the problem that’s been described. Oh, this is why I can’t have stew. Well, what if it’s like cold fusion stew? What if it’s made out of tree bark and happiness?
[Howard] Well, okay, that’s probably not very tasty.
[Elizabeth] [inaudible garbled] magic cooking pot.
[Scott] I think you need to kind of zero in on your fantasy or science fiction reader here.
[Scott] Like, what if it’s quantum entanglement? What if it’s unicorn fruit? What if it’s both? I don’t know.
[Howard] That’s where rainbows come from.
[Scott] What if they’re the same thing?
[Elizabeth] Coming to a writing workshop near you.
[Scott] Can haz PhD, please.
[Howard] The point being, you look at the problem and you solve it in a way that makes something interesting, and often you’ll end up with something interesting that grows out of that. Oh, well, these characters are from country A where they have the bark and happiness ceviche, and they’re traveling with this, and that’s why they get mugged on the road. Because other people want it. So you ask these logistical questions and you get answers that inform your story.
[Elizabeth] I mean, one of the other things that’s interesting as we were talking about medieval and Renaissance English cuisine… One of the things that we should know as modern Americans is that what you eat has serious health consequences. There were a lot of specifically middle-class and upper-class gentlemen in late medieval and Renaissance England who underwent an extremely painful surgery because their diet gave them bladder stones.
[Elizabeth] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly.
[Scott] There’s an awful lot of wine throughout history that was… A lot of cheap wine that was flavored with sweet lead salts.
[Howard] Goodbye, Rome.
[Elizabeth] But specifically if you’re dealing with a diet that is almost entirely bread and sugar and wine and beef, it’s really not good for your kidneys and bladder. Among other problems. But… So diabetes is an epidemic. Then, the working classes don’t have those problems, but they have other malnutrition problems. There’s a world building thing, there, too, especially if you’re writing gritty hyper-realistic fantasy where everything is awful and people suffer terribly. Say you’re Neal Stephenson, for example.
[Scott] Snobbery and status are also really important, really… I mean, like oysters. In the modern parlance, oysters… Oysters are an elite food. Oysters and champagne. Oysters are hoity-toity. But they were working class food in the 19th century, because they were the cheapest…
[Elizabeth] Just like lobsters.
[Scott] The cheapest protein available. It’s just waiting there to be pulled out of the sea. People would be absolutely sick of these damn things. No, I can’t have another lobster. Oh, my God, how cheap and low class.
[Elizabeth] There were rules in Boston about how often you could give your servants lobster.
[Howard] Oh, my gosh.
[Elizabeth] Because it was considered cruel. It was like three times a week, I think.
[Howard] Okay, so the…
[Howard] No, let me ask this question.
[Scott] No! Not the lobster, sir, please. No, not the butter.
[Elizabeth] Let Howard talk, honey.
[Howard] My reaction to lobster versus the servant’s reaction to lobster is going to tell you a lot about the characters involved. As we were talking about the food, I was recalling some episodes we’ve done where we talked about writing romance. The character’s reaction to what is happening is far more interesting than the act of actually putting it in your face. I’m reminded of how the Tolkien books… The Tolkien books, of all things, made me hungry. Because I’d read those scenes in the way the characters reacting to what they’re putting in their mouths is making me have a reaction that says I need to go eat.
[Elizabeth] Seedcake doesn’t sound that great until people are fighting over it.
[Scott] The banquet scene in Dune… I mean, it’s not about the food. It’s about 20 other things other than the food. The food is interesting, but the arguments people are having in this barely controlled safe space around the banquet are what makes the scene famous.
[Scott] And seedcake.
[Elizabeth] And seedcake. And I’m hungry.
[Howard] Wow, actually, we’ve reached that…
[Dan] I’m kind of thinking… And, actually, our time is up, so it’s time for us to go and get dinner. But first, we get homework.
[Scott] Homework. All right, well, your homework is to go out and cook something. Actually, that’s useful homework. But my actual writing homework, since I have to give you a prompt. I want you all… All of you! Yes, you. I want you to take a character of your own who is beloved of you, and I want you to make them the antagonist, plausibly, in somebody else’s story.
[Elizabeth] And does this involve food?
[Scott] It can involve food. I want you to cook while doing this.
[Howard] Oh, way to throw down the gauntlet.
[Dan] Awesome. Cool. All right. So. Thank you very much, Scott and Elizabeth. You’re wonderful.
[Elizabeth] Thank you.
[Dan] Listeners, go out and read Karen Memory and all of their books. This has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.
[Elizabeth] Now go write.