The Fell Gard Codices

Most writers — most people — have what you might call weak points in their understanding; not necessarily things they don’t know about, but things for which they have no feeling. Subjects which leave them cold. Among my own no doubt numerous flaws is a near-complete disinterest in food and fashion. This is largely a function of who I am, as in my own life I largely look at these things in a utilitarian manner. That type of blind spot is normal, I feel. It becomes a problem in writing, though, since some characters will have a lively interest in the subjects you, the writer, don’t care about; others will have vivid memories built around them; and, in this specific case, if I’m building a world, I should probably know what my characters eat and wear.

So the passage about Kate remembering food — flawn and cheesecake — is the sort of thing I consciously try to add in, to give the story a bit more resonance, a bit more of a connection. Flawn was a medieval name for what these days is called flan, while cheesecake’s been around since the days of the ancient Greeks. They seemed like reasonable foods to mention, given what I was after in that passage.

More broadly, the issue of food (and clothing) is something the characters will have to deal with in the dungeon; what kind of food will they find, where will they find it, will they find enough? And how they think about these things will in part be shaped by their own experience with food and famine; with what they eat, and what foods they know, and what they think is edible. I’ve therefore spent a fair amount of time reading up on medieval diets, and what was available when. The trick, I think, with researching anything you don’t particularly care about is to link it so something you do care about. Obviously I care about the Fell Gard story. But overall, reading up on foods and spices becomes much more interesting to me when I can link these subjects to the bigger picture of travel and exploration, of negotiations between peoples.

So finding out where foods and spices and cloths and dyes came from, and how they came to be a part of Western European (and, later, North American) life, draws me in to that story. It has been argued, by people like Jared Diamond, that the kinds of food available to different peoples at different times have shaped the histories of those peoples. Certainly if you start looking at the history of food and diet, of crops and agricultural techniques, you find yourself looking at the history of technology, the history of economic development, the history of society in general — and you realise how false it is to think of the Middle Ages as static.

Biology anchors us to history. We need to eat to live. We don’t think about food the way our ancestors did; the ways food comes to us are wildly different, and those of us in cities perhaps don’t often think about the chains of processes that ends up yielding our daily bread. But there’s a history to all of it, which means there’s a story to it. It’s an important story, and I want to challenge myself to understand it, and use it to deepen the story of Fell Gard, the story that I want to tell.

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