World Building 101: Don’t Forget the Taste of the Food, Dude

When I’m teaching world building workshops, I often tell my students that less is more. When you are trying to create vivid new worlds, ONE or TWO well-chosen details per page can do the job nicely, thank you very much. You don’t need to deluge your readers with dozens of clues to show them that they aren’t in Kansas anymore.

But it is important to choose your world building details carefully. When I’m writing for teens and children, I make sure that I often include my favorite sensory detail: taste. If you have kids of your own, you realize how important food is to them. When I pick my offspring up from school, their first question (asked with desperate urgency) is almost always, “Mom, what’s for dinner?”

Taste and smell are powerful senses. They are tangled up with each other in our brains, and with our memories. How often does smelling a familiar scent instantly transport you back to your childhood?

Writing The Neptune Project, a novel set almost entirely in the sea, posed all sorts of interesting world building challenges. I wanted to make sure my readers understood what a wrenching transition my characters face when they give up their lives on land forever to live in the sea. At one point my Neptune kids eat a meal of raw fish and talk about the food they miss from back home, like warm, crusty bread. It’s a simple conversation with only a few sensory details, but I think it conveys effectively just how much these kids have lost.

I knew from the start that my Neptune kids were going to have to eat raw seafood and seaweed for the rest of their lives, which meant (gulp) that I had to know what that stuff tasted like. So my game hubby joined me for an expedition to a sushi restaurant where we tried raw eel, squid, octopus, and sea urchin. The squid and octopus were quite tasty, if a little chewy, but I’m quite sure I’m NEVER going to develop a taste for sea urchins! In fact, after this gastronomic adventure, we quickly decamped and headed for a frozen yogurt place.

But what if you are creating a completely different world from ours, and your characters are going to eat lots of roast merinbeast? You can’t go taste that in a local restaurant. Then you better figure out ways to let your readers know what roast merinbeast tastes like, without saying it tastes like “steak” or “hamburger,” which will instantly eject your readers from your world. Instead you might try adjectives like “rich,” “fatty,” “gamey,” or “savory.”

Taking the time to include taste details will pay off for you big time. World building is all about creating a visceral experience for your readers, and you’ve done your job if they can actually taste the food in your world.

Polly Holyoke is June's first Affiliate Blogger. To find out more about our guest author positions here at the League, click here.

Polly Holyoke graduated from Middlebury College and earned her teaching certificate from theUniversity of Colorado. She loved working as a middle school social studies teacher and has been writing stories since she was in fifth grade. When she isn’t tapping away on her computer, Polly enjoys reading, camping, skiing, scuba diving and hiking in the desert. She lives with three rescue dogs, two spoiled cats and a very nice husband who tolerates piles of books all over their house.
The Neptune Project
by Polly Holyoke

The Neptune Project is set in a future where the seas are rising and wars and famines wrack the surface world. Nere Hanson and her teen companions are shocked to learn that they have been genetically altered by their desperate parents to live in the sea. Protected by her loyal dolphins, shy Nere leads the rest on a perilous journey to her father’s new colony. Fighting off government divers, sharks and giant squid, can Nere and her companions learn to trust each other before their dangerous new world destroys them?

1 comment:

S.P. Bowers said...

Ug, I can barely handle cooked seafood. You are dedicated to your craft! I've had calamari (octopus) before and don't think I ever want to repeat the experience. Great advice on sensory details though.