Sunday, September 27, 2009

Recipes and Writing

They tell you to use all your senses in writing, and taste is often a hard one to remember. After all, most of the time we’re totally unaware of what we’re tasting. Then we cook.

Some books, such as Tales out of School, by Shirley Ann Howard, include detailed descriptions of all the delights of the kitchen without reading like a recipe book. Others make me jump out of the story with sudden inserts of spaghetti sauce made from scratch. (Yes, I do make spaghetti sauce from scratch, but not with carefully laid out ingredients all measured and carefully remembered; more likely with a quick raid of the fridge and a bit of whatever I find there plus tomatoes and herbs.)

Which leaves me wondering, what makes the difference between writing with taste and writing with recipe book?

Tales out of School was a really enjoyable, leisurely read. It’s not just cooking that the author describes in great detail. There’s the mating rituals of rabbits (plus Latin name), and the cost and rarity of coastal properties… It all fits together because these are the things that matter to the characters. They’re part of their lives and loves, of cooking, of science, of detail, of home and family, and of the characters for each other—a truly fine book of love which does indeed include all five senses.

Since most of my characters share at least a few of my characteristics, it probably wouldn’t be realistic for me to try including such culinary details. They'd almost certainly read like a recipe book, because that’s where I’d have to search to find them.

Of course, I could just describe the inside the of the fridge—that nameless, well-sealed container at the back that should probably be thrown in the bin before its contents decide to climb out; the dried dusty grapes that must have fallen to the bottom of the drawer; the sinking ridges and hollows that grace the surface of an over-ripe avocado… No. Perhaps I’d better not.

Then there’s the slightly salty, creamy taste of a stolen piece of cheese.

4 comments:

Terry Odell said...

Clever comparison. I definitely don't use a 'recipe book' approach to my writing. And, for the most part, I don't use one for cooking all that often, and when I do, I have enough faith in my experience that if I need or want to modify a recipe, I can. (Baking doesn't count, really - that's chemistry).

Sun Singer said...

Several times while reading Pat Conroy's SOUTH OF BROAD, I came across rather casual references to somebody cooking a meal. Nothing extensive, but written in such a way one can tell the characters know what they're doing. Then I remembered that Conroy has also authored a cook book. Aha.

Malcolm

Kathryn Magendie said...

I love reading sensory details in books - cooking is one of them - the chopping, the snappity sound of onions sizzling, the aromas - oh! :)

Stephanie Faris said...

I HAVE to use a recipe to cook. But not with my writing. I just go on instinct. It's a hard thing to explain.