Guest Post: How Do They Feast? Portraying Food in Fantasy and Historical Fiction

I’m hosting guest authors through most of April and May, as I am swamped with Awesome Con DC and welcoming Baby Boy Brightley into the world. This guest post was written by Christine Frost, the author of The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and Dark Lady of Doona.

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How Do They Feast? Portraying Food in Fantasy and Historical Fiction

As someone who loves to study world history, I’m a stickler for details. When compiling research for historical fiction, I don’t limit myself to studying the major historical milestones or cultural elements for the time and place I’m writing about, I also carefully look at everyday life. While writing about sixteenth-century Ireland, I found great resources on fishing, farming, and homes in rural villages. I didn’t use it all in fear of overloading the reader on historical details, but it was good to know in case just the right scene came to mind as I wrote the novel. Achieving a realistic feel and avoiding anachronism while letting the story be told is a delicate balance, and there’s one aspect that can often be overlooked: food.

Cooking is one of my passions. So is reading. Occasionally, I find myself completely removed from the flow of the story because of an inaccurate detail. In a book set in fifteenth-century Eastern Europe, characters sat around the fire drinking hot cocoa with milk. Yet at the time, Spanish explorers were only just learning about cocoa beans in the New World, where it was served cold, and spiced very differently than how we think of the drink.

As the characters in my novels enjoy a feast, I hope to connect the reader to the experience. Can they see themselves in that world? I began the “How Do They Feast?” series on my blog as a means to share the recipes featured in my stories. I also explore how food is portrayed in other works of fiction.

The idea of creating a realistic culinary experience translates into fantasy as well. Following the lead of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was heavily influenced by ancient Norse literature while working on the Lord of the Rings, many fantasy authors have some cultural base upon which they develop their own worlds. This too requires buy-in from the reader. Have you ever tripped over a detail that doesn’t seem realistic, even in a fantasy world? Perhaps a group of traveling companions hunts with too much ease in a strange land, or they always find fresh water, without fail? What happens if they don’t recognize any of the local plants? Could someone inadvertently be poisoned if they pick the leaves from one plant, believing it’s the same as something they knew at home?

Worldbuilding, be it historical fiction or fantasy, necessitates a hefty amount of research to be done well. As a writer, you need to be able to comfortably maneuver within the world without becoming overwhelmed by the research. There are a few resources that can make this easy, depending on your influences:

Krista Ball’s What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank: A Fantasy Lover’s Food Guide provides an excellent overview of how to portray food in fiction: Which kind of food and equipment can your travelers realistically bring with them, medieval laws concerning hunting (hint: if you get caught in the king’s forest, you may find yourself at the gallows), and many other useful tips about the events that are not often covered often in fantasy, but maybe should be, such as food riots and sieges.

With the availability of public domain books on the internet, you can go directly to the source: There is a host of free, original texts, from Victorian cookbooks to The Forme of Cury A Roll of Ancient English Cookery, compiled in 1390 by the master cooks of King Richard II. Many presses, especially academic ones, offer a broader range of cultures, such the A Baghdad Cookery Book (Petits Propos Culinaires), written in the 1200s, and The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, which explores cooking in the ancient Near East. Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, is a fantastic resource which demonstrates the influences cultures had on one another. Be sure to search for wonderful blogs! Many people followed the Inn at the Crossroads blog’s efforts to recreate the dishes described in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series before their beautiful A Feast of Ice and Fire: The Official Game of Thrones Companion Cookbook cookbook came to be. The Silk Road Gourmet blog offers detailed history and recipes that span centuries of culinary arts.

Whatever your passion, in food or culture, there is a bounty of resources to choose from to help you build your world and satiate the appetites of your characters and readers alike.

Guest Author Bio:

Christine Frost received a master’s degree in literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School. Having worked as a beer and mead brewer and an international sales assistant for a record label, she eventually found her career in the world of words, becoming a communications manager and editor, writer of historical fiction, and teaching assistant for college-level literature courses. She’s the author of two novels, The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love and Dark Lady of Doona, a novelette, Captured Possessions, and“Moonfall,” a short story, appears in the Shadows of a Fading World anthology. She’s happily ensconced in a place overcrowded with books in the Boston area with her husband. Her website is