The theme for this month’s blog comes from a friend at work. Thanks, Louise. She asked: how much time (book time) do you put in towards the everyday necessities like eating and sleeping? Characters need to eat and sleep, but how much of them doing that needs to be shown in the story?
The short answer is that it depends on the book. For a contemporary story set in our world a lot of those details can be skimmed over, as readers already know how that kind of thing works here, although I might include something local to a specific region depending on setting. For example in Sunset at Pencarrow Lou Sylvre and I had Nate and Rusty eating lamingtons and other local New Zealand fare.
As a writer I often need to figure out where the characters sleep and what they eat in order to ensure the continuity of my timeline. However, the final decision about whether those details making it into the book usually depends on whether they’re necessary to the plot and drive the story forward, or slow it down. Often it’s a thin line between the two.
For an historical, especially if the characters are doing a road trip, it can be a little more difficult working out the details of these everyday necessities. For example, if they’re being pursued across occupied Europe during WWII, they’ll need to find somewhere safe to stay and a way to find the food they need.
Buying food could be a problem especially if the area is under surveillance, and whatever they eat needs be accurate for the setting and time period. In Winter Duet Michel and Kristopher spent the night in a barn on a bed of straw after sharing a meal of Eintopf—thick stew full of beans and spicy sausage—with the older couple who own the farm. Later at another safe house, the meal is stew again but this time out of a tin. Being war time tea and coffee isn’t readily available either, and often what passes for it isn’t very palatable.
With that book being partly a road trip across Germany in 1944, I also needed to figure out where they could sleep without risk of being arrested. Keeping in mind what was going on at the time was important too as Germany was being bombed by the Allies. Having them staying in a town that had been destroyed a few days beforehand wouldn’t have worked very well. Instead I had them at ground zero taking shelter in an abandoned apartment building and sleeping on the floor when the bombs dropped. This helped to drive the story as they needed to get out of there quickly and find somewhere to shelter until the raid was over.
Coffee caused more of a problem than I thought it would in
Shades of Sepia. Ben, a New Zealander, is working in a cafe in the fictional city of Flint, Ohio. Here in New Zealand, we’d go into a cafe and ask for a flat white. That doesn’t work in the U.S. Ben explains:
I had no idea serving coffee could be so complicated.” He’d referred to coffee with creamer his first day on the job as a flat white. The woman had looked at him blankly and asked why he was talking about house paint. In hindsight, he should probably be thankful he hadn’t handed her the coffee and called it a straight black.
On the subject of coffee, it’s weird that many of my characters are fixated on it, yet I don’t drink it at all.
If anyone else has topics or questions they’d like answered in future blog posts—within reason and I reserve the right to avoid spoilers—I’d love to hear from you.