Writing Tasty Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Here at TKZ we love to talk about the nuances of the craft. These take the form of both things to do and things not to do. As Brother Gilstrap likes to remind us, these aren’t “rules.” They are, however, basics that work every time, and if you choose to ignore them, that’s your business. But if your business is also to make dough with your writing—which means connecting with a large slice of the reading public—you would be wise to attend to the fundamentals.

On the not side, there are what I call “speed bumps.” (Have a look at my post on that subject). These are the little things you can easily overlook, but which cause a jolt to what should be a smooth and emotive fictive ride. Too many of these bumps ruins the whole experience, and does not leave the reader anxious to purchase another of your books.

On the positive side, there are things you can do to help a reader feel more fully immersed in your story. And one of those things is the use of sensory description.

You’ll see a lot written about the sense of sight and sound. The visual and the audible. These are the twin pillars of show, don’t tell.

There’s also the underused but valuable sense of smell.

The other day it occurred to me that not much has been written about the sense of taste. I had that thought as I was reading a noir story by Joyce Carol Oates, “Faithless,” included in the collection The Best American Noir of the Century (eds. James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, 2010). Here’s the opening:

The last time my mother Cornelia Nissenbaum and her sister Constance saw their mother was the day before she vanished from their lives forever, April 11, 1923.

It was a rainy-misty morning. They’d been searching for their mother because something was wrong in the household; she hadn’t come downstairs to prepare breakfast so there wasn’t anything for them except what their father gave them, glutinous oatmeal from the previous morning hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and tasting of scorch.

That word scorch jumped right into my mouth. Most of us think of that word as a verb. Here it’s used as a noun and as such packs a nice, unexpected punch. It deepens the tone of the scene and thrusts us into the experience of these girls. And as I mentioned in a recent post, putting the most expressive word at the end of a sentence can make all the difference. A lesser writer might have put: hastily reheated on the stove, sticking to the bottom of the pan and giving it a scorched taste.

So that’s one good use of taste—to set a tone consistent with the mood of the story.

Another use of taste is to intensify an emotional feeling. In Jodi Picoult’s The Book of Two Ways, the narrator tells us of the first kiss from a long, lost love. Earlier in the book, we are told this about Wyatt, the lover, an archeologist working in Egypt:

I remember how he smelled like the sun baked into his clothes and also butterscotch. How, weeks later I would learn that he kept sweets in his pocket, for himself and to give to the barefoot children who waited for him in the blistering heat at the entrance to the wadi as we left for the day. 

Then, some 75 pages later, after sharing a bottle of champagne:

“This,” Wyatt said, and he leaned forward and kissed me.

The night tightened around us, a noose. Wyatt’s hand slipped under my braid, curving around the nape of my neck. I tasted champagne and butterscotch and shock. Somehow, Wyatt was just as surprised as I was.

We recall the butterscotch, and we’ve just seen the champagne. But tasting shock? What an arresting way to work in this element of the experience (and, once again, at the end of the sentence).

In Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” we are in the POV of a dying man, a writer on safari in Africa. He’s got gangrene in his leg and a rescue plane hasn’t shown up. He goes in and out of memories of his past, including the killing of Greek troops, shot by their own officers as they ran from Turkish soldiers:

That was the day he’d first seen dead men wearing white ballet skirts and upturned shoes with pompons on them. The Turks had come steadily and lumpily and he had seen the skirted men running and the officers shooting into them and running then themselves and he and the British observer had run too until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies and they stopped behind some rocks and there were the Turks coming as lumpily as ever.

A coppery taste in the mouth is associated with fear. You’ll often see it put this way in stories: His mouth tasted like copper or The coppery taste of fear flooded his mouth. But Hemingway wrote it as the taste of pennies. Specific and vivid.

So:

  1. Use taste to deepen scenes of high emotion.
  2. Hunt for an unexpected word (scorch; pennies) to vivify the moment; readers glaze over what’s bland.
  3. See if you can put that word at the end of the sentence.

Okay, I’ve said a mouthful. Over to you:

Have you thought much about the sense of taste in your writing? Any examples you’d like to share?

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27 thoughts on “Writing Tasty Fiction

  1. Here is an excerpt from my book, The Unraveling of Mrs. Noland, which takes place in 1960:

    (Danny is attempting to rekindle a relationship with his high school sweetheart, Maeve, who is now a 50-year-old widow. He takes her to his favorite restaurant, where she has never been before. After eating lobster, Danny orders coffee and dessert: Lemon Sherbet Garnished with Skinny Ginger Cookies.)

    “Watch me, Maeve. I’ll demonstrate the proper procedure. Bite the cookie, first. Mmm, very spicy. Cool down with a spoonful of sherbet. Sweet, with a sour aftertaste. Next, burn your tongue on a sip of black coffee. Ouch. More sherbet, to cool off your tongue. Repeat the sequence until everything is finished and your tongue is either healed or stripped raw.”

    +5
  2. You sent me hunting through my books, which was fun. A few examples I found, although none match the quality of yours

    She sipped her whisky. “This is good, too. I think there’s a chocolatey undertone, don’t you?”
    Chase took another taste, and agreed, although he’d have agreed if she’d said it tasted like old socks.

    *******
    He ambled to the bank of vending machines and selected a cup of coffee he knew would taste like cardboard, not because he needed a caffeine jolt, but to avoid dealing with the thoughts bobbing to the forefront of his brain like a punching bag clown.

    *******
    Don’t tell me you’re afraid of snakes.”
    “I don’t meet many in my line of work. I suppose this is where you tell me your dad served rattlesnake for dinner. And it tastes like chicken.”
    “In fact, it tastes like rattlesnake.”

    *******
    “It’s on the spicy side. Chipotle, I think.”
    “I can handle a little spice.” Jinx spooned up a mouthful, swallowed, and his tongue was set ablaze. Tears streamed from his eyes, he coughed, and his nose ran. He reached for his water glass, but Elle stayed his hand.
    “Not water.” She pushed the sugar bowl across the table. “Eat a spoon of that.”
    He wasn’t going to argue. He scooped a spoonful of sugar and did as Elle recommended. The sweet crystals dissolved in his mouth, and did quench some of the fire.
    He coughed again, wiped his nose and eyes with his napkin. “Where did you learn that trick?”
    “My brother. He competes in chili cook-offs. It’s a survival trick. Dairy is best, but there’s no milk or ice cream on the table.”
    “Maybe we’ll get ice cream for dessert.”
    Jinx eased a piece of avocado from the top of the bowl. He’d seen that come straight out of its skin, so it shouldn’t burn his taste buds. The creaminess worked to absorb more of the heat. He was hungry enough to brave another small taste of the soup. Beneath the heat, he discovered the underlying flavors of the broth. “It’s good. Took me by surprise is all.”
    Elle covered her mouth with her napkin, as if she were struggling not to laugh.
    “Hey, my mother’s family originated in Germany. They don’t do spicy,” he said.

    +4
  3. Great food for thought, Jim.

    Sorry, I have no good examples. That’s something I need to work on. But a couple things to add: Taste is very closely associated with smell. When we lose our sense of smell, things don’t taste right, something significant with Covid-19. Also, smell is closely associated with memories.

    When I looked for examples, I had many with the sense of smell, not so with taste. I need to add that to my menu.

    Thanks for a great post.

    +4
    • A dollop of taste is like a dash of spice. At the right time it can enliven a scene. Might be best to add after a first draft, when you know what scenes you want to deepen.

      +3
  4. Hi, Jim,

    I don’t do nearly enough of this in my fiction, but it was fun looking through a few of my books (courtesy of the Find command, of course) to find two examples. They aren’t nearly as fine as the ones you shared, but I enjoyed finding them.

    From Empowered: Agent
    The tallest of the six redwoods loomed in front of me. My senses opened up and my awareness expanded until I was inside the tree and it was inside me. It wasn’t just a tree, it was part of a world forest, part of the green growing plant life which covered the earth.
    I tasted redwood needles, ash tree bark, cattail fronds. My skin felt like moss and bark at the same time. My blood sang with every breath the world forest took.

    Gremlin Night
    “Ti amo alla mia volontà,” I chanted in Italian. I yoke thee to my will.
    The spell looped in a flowing golden chain from the tip of my wand, and around the huge waist of the manifestation.
    I repeated the command. I suddenly tasted rotten fruit, and fought against gagging.

    ***
    Thanks again for today’s post. It will be great fun working on the tastes of my fiction in the future 🙂

    +2
    • I like both your examples, Dale. How arresting to do so from the POV of a tree. Truly unique, vivid. And specific: redwood needles, ash tree bark, cattail fronds. Nicely done.

      +2
  5. Good one, JSB. I have a little “senses slug” at the top of each scene for prompting. Taste is always the toughest one to incorporate. Here’s one from my second time-travel adventure. My Neanderthal has just come up in the Med sea just off the coast of Gibraltar:

    He stopped spinning in the water and focused his eyes on the Rock, squinting. His initial shock and confusion were settling down into a close examination of his surroundings.
    I watched him taste the water and cock his ear in the direction of the descending plane. He sniffed the air, which felt hot. Probably one of those Solano winds that came out of Africa in late summer.

    +1
    • Great idea about a “sense slug,” Harald. I think it was Sol Stein who advised having a sensory element on every page. It’s good to have a reminder like yours before you chart a scene.

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  6. So no one here has read the dreaded REMEMBRANCES OF THINGS PAST by French author Marcel Proust? This memoir/novel starts with the author/main character eating a Madeline cookie which brings back the memories of his childhood that he then regurgitates for many pages? The power of taste illustrated in one cookie.

    Proust knew what brain science now recognizes. Taste has the most powerful connection with memory and emotion of any of the senses, and an author who can make that connection with the right words has the reader firmly inside the book. So, go for the taste.

    I always recommend Poul Anderson’s writing advice that a writer should include four of the five sense in most scenes to make it more vivid to the reader.

    And a word of warning for those of us here who are older than dirt. Using the taste of a copper penny no longer works because there’s been no copper in pennies for many years, and the ones that had some copper have gone into coin collections instead of the change drawer at the local shop.

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    • Just a slight correction. The taste of a copper penny will still work as a descriptor in modern day novels. While the copper content of a penny has been reduced to only 2.5% for the last 40 years, the copper is applied as a thin plating onto a zinc base. It still tastes the same even if it is not through and through copper.

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  7. Terrific, Jim. Thank you. I appreciate in my reading — the works of Donna Leon and James Lee Burke come immediately to mind — but not writing. It’s something to strive for.

    +1
  8. Good post, with some well-chosen examples. Thanks.
    Here, the opening line from my WIP:
    Augustus Henry sniffed. The chill morning breeze pricked tears from his eyes. He could smell—and taste—snow on the air.

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    • Bill, “they” say “don’t start with the weather,” but the exception, IMO, is when it’s filtered through a character, as you’ve done here. Nice.

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  9. My share on taste & smell from a WIP.

    The protagonist was trying to befriend a young working class female who thinks he is just another upper class snob like his many rich friends who look down on her. He confides to her that he doesn’t come from wealth and in fact, started out very poor, no electricity or running water. So poor that if she met him then, her mother would warn her to stay away from a boy “with such poor prospects.” A heartbreaking experience he actually had as a 13-year-old boy, which he explains to her.

    “I was 13 years old and met a nice girl of same age, Jane Moore, a pretty girl with brown hair and soft brown eyes. She had a smile that could brighten a cloudy day, or melt a young boy’s heart.”

    “Though I realize now her family was lower middle class, to me at the time they appeared rich. Living 2 miles away on a county road, her family had electric service at their house. We didn’t. They had their own water well with an electric pump, a seemingly endless supply of fresh water. I remember Jane always smelling of soap, like she had just climbed out of her bathtub. As a boy I found this fragrance as enticing as I do now when a woman wears French perfume.”

    I chuckled a bit and Darlene asked, “The whole story of your early life sounds so sad; what makes you feel like laughing?”

    I said, “I was remembering the day I discovered my 15-year-old brother was an artist.” Only getting a single raised eyebrow from Darlene, I continued the story. “After the love of my life and I broke up, I was terribly lonely. I was sure I had hit rock bottom; things couldn’t possibly get worse. I took to tagging along with my older brother, which annoyed him as little brothers are supposed to do.”
    “Finally, he got tired of me dogging his footsteps as he and another friend went about having summer fun, like fishing or fixing things. So, he and his friend were out by the barn and called to me.

    I was thrilled, finally my big brother wanted me to tag along. I quickly came around the barn only to see them duck around the other corner. I was puzzled for a moment until I looked down to see the fuse of a big firecracker sputtering as it burned down into a firecracker stuck into a massive heap of very fresh cow dung.”

    “I had just enough time to raise my hands up to shield my face so I didn’t get shit blown into my eyes. I heard a loud ‘bang’ and felt myself getting splattered with cow shit from head to toe. The smell of ammonia and rotten eggs was intense. It took me a moment to realize the blast had propelled cow shit up my nose. A little known fact, no matter how tightly you pucker your lips shut, cow shit propelled at supersonic speeds will get through. Just in case someone asks you, it tastes a lot like canned spinach.”

    I had to give Darlene a moment to catch her breath from laughing so hard while, at the same time, trying to stifle her amusement at my tragic experience.

    “As I lowered my hands and looked back at the barn. I saw my brother had painted a perfect silhouette of me in cow shit on the side of the barn. He was indeed an artist and I was his model.”

    “To this day, anytime someone mentions the phrase ‘shit storm’ that is the image which comes to mind. Complete with the smell and taste.”

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      • Do you recall the Johnny Carson Show where he held an envelop up to his towel wrapped head and guesses what was in it? I think you would be very good at that skit.

        First hand experience from the git go.

        My brother and I “researched” the Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid movie scene where they blew up the safe in the rail car with a few too many sticks of dynamite. Only we did it with acetylene gas forced under a shed building next to our vegetable garden. It was being plundered by field rats and we didn’t want to be hungry come winter. Same flying backward and landing on our asses. The thing they got wrong in the movie was an experience like that leave you temporarily deaf. I could see my brother’s mouth moving but no sound came out. As a matter of fact, that was 60 years ago and my ears still ring.

        Cheers

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  10. I’m a little late to the party, but enjoying all the comments. Thanks for this advice, Jim.

    Here’s my entry from my latest novel:

    He pulled her to him and kissed her. It was a solid kiss, one you could hang your life on. She tasted butterscotch in his mouth and a hint of dust. He must have been out here all morning helping Sara and teaching his riding students.

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