Friday, February 19, 2016

Writer Super Power #3: Tasting

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Happy Friday, friends!

We are smack dab in the middle of our Friday series on Writer Super Powers. If you're playing catch-up, here are the links for the first two posts on Hearing and Smelling.

Since taste is so intimately connected to our sense of smell, let's tackle our taste buds next.

1. What the WRITER tastes
I've learned a lot about taste by watching my husband grow his coffee roasting company. Here's something you may not know: coffee beans are not really beans at all. They're actually seeds. They're the pit inside a cherry that grows on a coffee plant. Most cherries have two seeds and when they're separated they look very similar to the coffee beans you buy at the store. Only, they're green.

To get that gorgeous russet color, they must be roasted. And when they're roasted it's not just the color that changes. The flavor of the bean goes through quite a transformation. There's a science to it. A science that I do not fully understand but thoroughly appreciate.

The flavor of coffee is determined by so many things: where it comes from, the other crops in the area, how it was processed, how it was roasted, how long it was roasted for, how long ago it was roasted, the fineness of the grind, the brewing method used, filter choice, and the temperature of the water it was brewed in.

The sheer volume of people and equipment involved in getting a cup of coffee into your hand is staggering. But when we write about coffee, what is it we say? Many times we reach into our bag of words and pull out one of the four or five adjectives that we've tucked away under the category in our head labeled 'coffee'. Coffee is often described as strong or bitter. It's described as dark or delicious. Perhaps burnt or smoky.

But did you know some coffees taste like currants? Did you know there are coffees with notes of raspberry and chocolate, juicy apricot and caramel? There are coffees that linger longer on your taste buds than others. Some sit on the back of your tongue for hours. Some vanish soon after sipped. Some are sweet and some are robust and some leave behind a citrus finish.

It took me a long time (and a lot of coffee!) to appreciate the variety of flavors in each cup of Joe. There are entire vocabularies of words that people in the coffee industry use to describe their products. And though I don't expect any of us to suddenly become culinary experts, making a concerted effort to truly taste things can serve our writing well.

Like our other senses, taste must also be honed. And so, this is me, telling you to slow down and eat for more than just sustenance. Eat for taste. Eat for flavor. While you eat, turn over the words in your head that describe the bite in your mouth and consider how you could pass the experience on to your readers.

But we don't just taste food, do we? We taste blood when we bite our lip and we taste dirt when we fall to the ground. We taste salty sweat and gritty sea air. We taste the sick that coats our tongue when our stomach flips. Unpleasant or decadent, it is worth your time and energy to expand on your vocabulary of flavors. And don't just focus on adjectives.

How do certain tastes make you feel? What do they remind you of? An orange, any orange really, takes me back to summers at my grandparents' farmhouse in central California. Fields of cotton spreading east and west, goathead stickers in my sandals, a puckered wet slice of citrus on my tongue and my fingernails stained sunset orange with all all the rinds I'd torn into.

Taste should evoke more than just fancy adjectives in the mind of a writer. If you're not there yet, that's okay. Keep reading, keep storing away words, and definitely keep eating!

2. What the CHARACTERS taste
Several years ago I had teen writer send me some questions to answer for a paper she was writing. The assignment was to write about how an author handled food in their writing. I'll be honest, I hadn't thought much about it until she asked the questions, but I was glad for the opportunity.

I shared about Kaylee, a vegetarian character in the Angel Eyes trilogy and how I'd initially written her with that preference because I wanted her to appear flighty, and somewhere tucked away in the chaos of my brain I'd connected these two things.

I wrote about Jake's love for doughnuts and how he offers Brielle a cherry cruller at one point because those are my father's favorites. I wrote about how Canaan, Jake's guardian, made the best lasagna in the world and how he always made lasagna when he had something important to discuss.

In the real world, memories are often tied to mealtimes. Especially family memories. Good memories and bad alike are often accompanied by food. Our fictional worlds should reflect that.

How do your characters respond to such situations? To food eaten with people they care about? Or the last family meal before your hero's parents split? How about flavors your characters associate with their worst enemies? The metallic flavor of blood oozing from a split lip or the grit of mud between teeth that have been shattered against the pavement?

Your characters' lives should be full of flavor--and though not everything should be described in minute detail, don't let your characters make it through an entire adventure without giving them things to taste, flavors to describe to the reader. In the same way that sharing a meal with a friend promotes intimacy, sharing taste experiences with a character leaves the reader feeling more connected to this fictional person you've created. Which brings us to . . .

3. What the READERS taste
I remember being eight years old and jamming myself so full of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner I thought I'd burst wide open, and still I craved the buttery once-a-year flavor of the dish.

I remember exactly what we were eating the night my dad told us all he'd been diagnosed with cancer. And I remember the plates of onions and tomatoes my mom cooked to strengthen his immune system in the days that followed.

I remember how the carefully made Puerto Rican food had gone cold on our plates as it sat on the beach the night my husband proposed. I remember how hungry the day had made me and how my gut was suddenly filled with something better than food the moment he'd popped the question.

Your readers have tasted their way through their lives. They've been surrounded by flavor at every turn. Tap into this shared experience by honing your ability to taste life. Don't just eat the moment plated before you--but really taste it. The texture of it and the color. The crunch of it between your teeth and the weight of it on your tongue. Expand your vocabulary and let your descriptions extend deeper than simple adjectives. In doing so, you'll help your reader taste your words.

And I can't think of anything more delicious.

Let's try something a little more interactive today. 
Wander into the kitchen and find something bite-sized to taste. 
Can you describe it for us? Can you describe it without depending solely on adjectives? 
What image does the taste evoke?


  1. I LOVE writing about food. Like you said, it's such an integral part of our lives that it should be in our writing.

    Okay, so for the prompt I shall describe a homemade cinnamon roll because it's what I'm eating for breakfast.

    The cinnamon roll is warm from the oven. Cool frosting contrasts with the warm roll and melts on my tongue the moment I take a bite. Each bite has the same texture: thick, but with a touch of bready fluff.

    Okay, that was a five-minute thing, so it's not perfect. I do so love to describe food, though. :) Thanks for the post, Mrs. Dittemore.

  2. Oh, Linea, you're making me jealous!! Seeing as how it's not even 6 o'clock where I live, my taste buds are not fully awake yet. I'll wait until I've eaten something good, then try and find time to post. In the meantime, though, I've got a question for Shannon (and anyone else who happens to see this). Ever since Stephanie did that awesome post on writing the book of your heart, I've been struggling between writing two books. One has a definite selling angle, and the other one...might not. I'm not totally sure--it would be a re-write of a cliché-riddled novel I penned about two years ago. That version was pretty much a stereotype in twelve point font, but I grew seriously attached to it...WAAAY too attached. Like, I can hardly write anything else because the characters are my best friends, attached. Like I said, I've brainstormed a way to make it more original, but should I be brave and actually re-write the whole thing? If anyone has any input, I'd love to hear it!

    1. You should try to combine the two in a way that both sells and you like it.

    2. Or you could try taking the characters from the story you like, and use them in the story you think will sell :)

    3. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Josie and Abi!
      I'm pretty sure I'm going to go for it and, as you said Abi, take my "old friend" characters and plop them in the midst of a much more original storyline. I agree with you, Josie, I need to find a way to make it publishable...yet keep it dear to my heart. Thanks again, you guys!!

    4. Glad we could help :)

    5. My point of view on this kind of thing has always been: Write the story you're most excited about. You are going to be with that thing for a looooong time if you see it through to publication. Writing something that you think MIGHT sell better but aren't in love with, is not an action I'd endorse. Writing is as much about the journey as it is about anything else. Jump in. Do what you love. And make no apologies.

  3. The cracker topped with a chunk of cheese sits lightly in my palm. The salt glitters, contrasting with the solid orange of the cheese. I take a small bite. The cracker splinters into shards in my mouth as I slowly chew, tasting the salt mixed with the familiar sharp, fresh cheese.

    1. I love your use of "glitters," "splinters" and "shards"! That'such vivid writing!

    2. I love your use of "glitters," "splinters" and "shards"! That'such vivid writing!

    3. Great, great job! I like how you start with the visual and then move us into the bite. Fun!

    4. Gosh, thanks! I really thought it wasn't good at all. I'm hard on myself like that. #awriter'slife :P

  4. The dark, almost black cookie tastes like chocolate but better. The creamy white filling feels wonderful. I wonder what it would taste like with peanut butter.
    Who can guess what it is?

    1. If it's an Oreo, I'm feeling mildly jealous... :)

    2. Better than chocolate! You so have my attention, Oreo!

  5. I took my vitamins this morning. The chalky crystallized substance on the outside reminds me of the chalky vitamins of my childhood. The inside, with it's honey fruit flavor, reminds me of my favorite fruit snacks.

  6. The pretzel, soft, cheesy, and perfectly warm, has all of the tastes of my childhood. The tastes of a simpler time when, after licking the salt from my fingers, I would race to the play area and concoct wild fantasies. Now, as I stare at it, all I can think of is the pillow-y dough which will deflate slightly the second I dare bite into it, the layers of crisped cheese that will flake into my mouth, and the delicious bits of zesty jalapeno sprinkled on top. My mom and I don't get to enjoy pretzels together very often, but when we do, the sweet taste of spending extra time with her is even better than the pretzel itself.

    1. Ahhhh! Warm pretzels! They remind me of the mall! My mom used to buy them for us all the time when we shopped. It was my consolation prize because I hated shopping as a kid.

  7. I had half a cucumber slice. Its cool taste vanished quickly on my tongue, but it reminded me of a certain restaurant that I love. That, of course, reminded me of blueberry muffins: the best blueberry muffins I've ever tasted, and all of the nights that my family would go there and I would stuff as many muffins as I could into my mouth. Quite a lot of taste for a little bit of cucumber.

    1. Perfect! The bite starts a train of memories and that's so very real. Good job.