Do books make you hungry? Engaging the senses


Hello Y’all,
I will be taking time off from MW for the next month. I am not saying good bye to the site, but I am taking my feet out of the sandbox for a while. I’ll see you again in June! I hope you will welcome Kalayna Price, author of Grave Witch (for which I just sent in a raving, 5 star blurb) and incredible person. :-)

Have you ever read a book that made you crave a food mentioned in the pages? Something that sounded so good, you went out searching for that food? Personally, I can think of at least two books right off the top of my head that sent me in search of foods I’d never even tried before.

The first was this passage from Chloe Neill’s SOME GIRLS BITE:

I put the bag on the kitchen counter and picked through it until I found the paper box of fried crab-and-cream-cheese-stuffed dough and a container of sweet-and-sour-sauce. I popped them both open, dipped the wrap in the sauce, and bit in. They were still hot–and I groaned happily at the taste: sweet, salty, crispy, creamy. Everything a newly changed vampire could want.

It’s not a long passage, and definitely nothing vital to the story. Mostly this very short passage helps ground the reader. It delivers a quick engagement of the senses (taste: sweet and salty; touch/tactile: crispy and creamy; that crispy also gives you a sound) and slips in a real world activity/experience the reader can relate to. I also happened to read that particular passage right around dinner time. Chinese suddenly sounded good, and hey, what do you know, crab rangoon was on the takeout menu. I’d never tried it before, but based on that description, I decided to order some. Several years later, I still order crab rangoon whenever I order Chinese takeout–I blame Merit and Chloe. ^_^

The other example that immediately pops into my head is Rachel Caine’s GLASS HOUSES. After I closed that book, I ended up spending a week searching for a good chili recipe. I don’t remember which passage in particular got stuck in my brain–I remember the book having a lot of chili in it–but here is the first example I came across in the text:

Claire picked up the spoon and tried a tentative bite of the chili, which was thick and meaty and spicy, heavy on the garlic. Delicious, in fact. She’d gotten used to cafeteria food, and this was just . . . wow

Like with the earlier example, the passage conveys several senses in a quick, snapshot of images. Thick tells you about the texture, meaty gives you a visual, spicy is a taste, and heavy on the garlic pulls double duty with taste and smell. Can’t you picture that bowel of chili? She doesn’t wax euphoric, it is a very fast description, and yet it grounds the reader by engaging multiple senses.

In contrast, I recently read a book that had a lot of food in it, but instead of making me think “man, I’ve got to get me some of that” left me thinking “This chick is eating again?” The main character ate gyros, burgers, falafels–I don’t even remember what else. I probably can’t remember because it wasn’t memorable. Oh, the author described some of the meals in detail as far as what was ordered, but there were no sense descriptions to go with the food so they didn’t become anything more than words.

Many writers out there are probably saying “I don’t care if I make people hungry–I just want to tell the story.” And that’s just fine. This post, while focusing on food examples, is actually about engaging the senses and pulling in your reader. Taste and small are the oft overlooked senses, but they are senses we use every day and they have a place in fiction. Part of being a writer is being an observer of life. In the next couple days, try to pay attention to smells and tastes. When you go to bed, do the linens smell of your fabric softener, your spouse’s conditioner, your dog? How about the elevator, what does is smell like? Taste is harder and definitely not a sense you can work into every or even most scenes. It’s harder still  if you’re looking for something other than food or intimate examples, but throughout the day you might run into something that will give your writing that touch of authenticity. Also, notice in the above examples how despite their brevity, multiple senses were engaged. Writing shouldn’t be a laundry list of every sensation possible, but look for places you can give extra power to your writing by grounding the reader with more than one sense.

Okay, I’ve babbled on long enough, but before I go, I’d like to repeat my earlier question: Has a book ever made you hungry


14 comments to Do books make you hungry? Engaging the senses

  • I did/do the whole chili thing with Rachel Caine’s books too. In fact, I went through about 4 good recipes, including starting with dried beans, soaked overnight, and beef slow-cooked, also overnight. It was wonderful chili.

    One of Tami Hoag’s books made my mouth water for fried softshell crab and beer-boiled, hot-peppered mudbugs. Hmmm. I have some softshelled crab in the freezer.

    Crab or chili? Sigh… Now see what you’ve done? I’m hungry. 🙂

  • Kalayna, I can be talked into almost anything if there’s rangoon involved. Yum!

    The first time a book made me hungry had to be “Little Women” and the pickled limes. I never got a chance to try them, and now I have a feeling I probably wouldn’t like them at all. But the idea of the whole class mourning when Amy had to throw hers out the window made them sound like the most delicious thing ever.

    Later I was tempted by Turkish Delight, courtesy of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. I mean, seriously…candy so tasty that it would make you betray your siblings? That must be some amazing candy. This time I did get a chance to try it, and bleh! It’s a little like jelly that was left to sit on the counter until it dried out halfway, then dusted with sugar.

    But even though I don’t care for the treats, the authors still convinced me that they were wonderful.

  • Jamie

    Ilona Andrews often describes food in the Kate Daniels books and it invariably makes me hungry. I spent two hours once hunting down fried chicken which I don’t even normally like.

  • I have wanted to taste Lembas since the first time I read Lord of the Rings thirty-odd years ago. It sounded so good, and its effects were so magical. Yeah, books make me hungry all the time — at least the well-written ones do. Thanks for the post Kalayna. Think I’ll go grab a snack….

  • Welcome to the sandbox Kalayna. Great post! You’re right, of course, that writers need to appeal to other senses besides just the visual, and what a great way to make the point.

    I once bought a story for IGMS (“For Want of Chocolate”, issue 14) largely because the author (J.F. (Jeremy) Lewis, of Staked and ReVamped fame) made me NEED to go eat some chocolate while I was reading his story for the first time. The funny thing is, Jeremy later confessed that he doesn’t even like chocolate; he just wanted to see if he could make other people crave it. Evil, evil man.

  • Thank goodness I was eating when I read the post (okay, a bagel and OJ isn’t exactly a highly craved mean, but I do love ’em.) Often with me, I find myself hungry sometimes, but it is the places I want to go. I still want to see Canterbury, and haven’t yet had a chance, because of the CT.

    David> I’ve always pictured lembas as some sort of really, really, really good shortbread. Don’t know why. 🙂

  • I’m a cook and a foodie (I think Justin Wilson called what I am a gourmand 😉 ) and I do find myself describing food in my writing from the perspective of someone who loves to cook and experience it. I do the same with alcohol, I’ve noticed. Course, perhaps that means I experience that one a bit more than I should. 😉

  • *groan* You HAD to post this while I’m sitting her with my stomach gurgling, waiting for my students to finish their exams. I’m with David and Misty – it’s the food I’ve never tasted that sounds most intriguing in novels. (And those pickled limes! I’ve been wanting one ever since. Turkish delight was a horrible let down though.) I know for a fact that I drink wine now because so many romance novels I read as a child had stunningly beautiful descriptions of wine as it glowed in the glass or restored a person to life or something like that. (My first taste of burgundy was a huge disappointment. Fortunately, German whites turned out to be wonderful. And brandy really does taste like it’s made to revive men wounded in battle.)

    For real food, I did once read a series of mysteries that featured She-Crab Soup on a regular basis. I’ve never had it, but from the description I imagined it tasting like a crabby, creamy, semi-divine version of the best Boston Clam Chowder. I’ve wanted to visit Maryland ever since, just on the strength of that soup. Oh poo – now my mouth is watering for Clam Chowder and I’m writing this from LA. I may have to make some for dinner tonight.

  • Ack! I’ve been on a self-imposed not-participating-in-MW/Reducing-Internet-Time kick until I finish my WIP. (Very close. Very very close.) But I have to chime in here. 🙂

    Books often make me hungry. Anne McCaffrey’s descriptions of food eaten in the Harper Hall (I’m thinking slices of meat) made my mouth water. And when I got to read The Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern I got to experiment perfecting the provided recipe for klah. (Coffee. Cinnamon. Chocolate. Yum.) Back when I was a kid/teen, reading anything SF/F that included reference to wine, cheese, and bread got me wanting grape juice (because at the time I thought it would taste the same), french bread, and cheese of any kind. With maybe some well-chosen lunchmeat or beef jerky.

    Speaking of that, time to use the rest of my lunch break to actually eat. And work on my WIP. *ducks back into hiding*

  • Sarah, my husband imported a bottle of Parisian absinthe for me a few Christmases back, because I’d always wanted to try it after reading about it so many times. Somehow, though, I’d missed that it was made with anise. I really, really, REALLY don’t like anise. But we discovered that a shot of absinthe is just about the best cough medicine there is! 😀

    BTW, I grew up eating she-crab soup, and it’s delicious. If you’re ever in Charleston SC, go to the Wreck of the Richard and Charlene and have some. You’ll love it.

  • Faith, I’m glad I’m not the only one who went through several recipes after reading Rachel’s books!

    Misty I had the same experience of Turkish Delights as you and Sarah. I had forgotten about the pickled limes in Little Women, though, but you’re right, I was curious about those as a kid. Maybe we can find a recipe.

    LOL, Jamie. Now that’s powerful description if you craved something you don’t even normally like.

    David. magical food has always been intriguing. Don’t think we can arrange that though. ^_^

    Thanks Edmund! Oh, Jeremy is evil indeed–but oh so funny! (Not like chocolate?! How can that be.)

    Great point, Pea Faerie. Books can definitely take you interesting places–or make you desperate to go to a place. Marcia Colette and I were actually talking about that on a panel at the last con we were both at. I believe the specific place mentioned was the Garden District in New Orleans (pre-Katrina, haven’t seen it post) and how streets and even individual buildings were almost familiar from Anne Rice’s vampire novels.

    LoL, Daniel.

    My work here is done, Sarah. ^_~ Oh, and we thought romance novels “corrupted” the youth with all the hot and heavy scenes, but now we know it’s really a portal to adult wine drinker–good to know! hehe

    Congrats on being close to finishing the WIP, Laura! Keep going!

    Misty, I had my first taste of absinthe at a time traveler’s ball. Somehow, in all the years before that, I missed that it was licorice flavored. Not my favorite drink and no little green faeries for me.

  • Mmm. Love licorice. Love anise. LOVE ABSINTHE. Unfortunately, I’m now intolerant to the sulfides in fermented beverages. .
    As for books making me hungry – I can’t think of any foods I craved, but several have made me thirsty. 🙂 It’s a book that got me hooked on cognac (before my allergies) and tequila (blame Carlos Castenada for that). I’d love to try mead and grog, too.

  • Razziecat

    Lyn, I’ve had mead. There are many different kinds, but honey is usually in all of them. And I don’t even like honey by itself, but mead is yummy.

    I haven’t read many books that have made me hungry, but I learned to love mushrooms while reading The Lord of the Rings…I didn’t like them before, but something about the way the hobbits craved them made them seem so alluring. 🙂 Now I eat them all the time!

  • Soldier’s Son series by Robin Hobb.
    The main character in that, without giving away any spoilers, becomes obsessed with eating. Every time the character eats, and it is first person, each mouthful is described in such detail that my mouth watered. She would describe the way seeds in the bread would pop between the character’s teeth, about the warm steam rising from bread mixing with the smell of fresh churned, half melted butter. Don’t get me started on the berries and mushrooms and even the gruel he ate as a soldier sounded delicious.