At a recent local writing event, I had the opportunity to discuss my novel with a group of (significantly more experienced) writers. We talked about our writing projects and how we are going, with one of them asking me about what kind of food people eat within my book’s universe. I winced a little, because I told her that I hadn’t really considered it.
For context, my book is set around the 26th century, in a time when humanity has rapidly expanded across the stars and inhabits many different kinds of planets. Chances are that the people living some five hundred years from today will be eating very differently. It is something that I had not considered because it is something else that I have to add to the universe which, quite frankly, doesn’t have much place in my book.
By contrast, another writing project I have is based in a medieval fantasy land, and features a great deal of discussion about food. This is because much of the food is the same, even if there are local variations (a special kind of cheese, for example).
I could still talk a bit about the kind of food that the people within my universe would eat, perhaps, but it’s not something I would include in the book because it would not serve any particular purpose. It serves no purpose in the same way that mentioning every time a character goes to the bathroom, what they had for breakfast, or when they brushed their teeth serves no purpose unless it contributes something important to the story. You’ll notice that writers for books, movies, television and plays don’t mention every time that a character must cater to their own bodily functions. It’s assumed that these things happen but are so mundane with comparison to the story so as to be not worth mentioning.
Food within my story takes quite the same form. I could mention planet-specific cuisines, exotic animals and the like, but those things will not impact upon the politics, the conflict, the struggles, and the difficulties that my characters face as the story unfolds. It would more akin to ‘product placement’ – mentioning something that is there just for the sake of drawing attention to it. There are more salient, more important concerns.
That’s not to say that you should never mention food, toilet breaks or even a character plugging in their phone when it is low on battery, but it highlights how essential it is to know WHEN to mention these things. If character A is in trouble and calls character B, it could make sense that character B won’t hear their call if they have left their phone on charge and happen to be in the bathroom. In that context, it’s worth mentioning. In the middle of a vast diplomatic council, however, you hardly need to mention the High Chancellor of Pretzeltown going to the bathroom unless it means something (maybe a bomb is about to go off and they know about it?).
So create your universe. I’m probably going to get around to creating everything that I need for my universe. Food will come into that equation eventually, but for now I find the politics, the technology, the ships, the planets, the stars and the people to be more important. Know what is essential to your story and what is just background fluff. Then, when you’re a world-renowned author, you can write one of those books with a title along the lines of “The World of Jillygrange – the People, Customs and Cuisine”.
Until then, I’ll stay away from what my character might be cooking – in the kitchen or in the bathroom.