Imagine for a moment that you’ve been riding a snorty horse for about twelve hours over tricky terrain. The weather has been less than cooperative–alternating between extreme heat/humidity and pelting rain. The rain has made all the tree-limbs heavy, so they droop down across the trail, slapping you in the face as you ride (they’re too low to duck under). You’ve gotten lost at least once already. There’s a tiny wrinkle in the fold of your left knee that you know is going to erode the skin down to the dermis, and it probably won’t heal for a month or more. The horse is going well (so far), but you’ve still got over thirty miles to ride before you’re done…and the wind is starting to pick up. Oh, good. It’s raining again.
Your riding partner hasn’t been feeling well, and you suspect electrolyte depletion/dehydration is at the bottom of it. You knew you should have packed those packets of “runner’s fuel”, but as it is you’ll have to wait until you get to the next checkpoint to help her. Meanwhile, she’s losing focus and beginning to ride like a wet sack. You’ve got to bring her back and engage her. What do you do? Well, if you’re me, you start talking about food. You fantasize about what you’re going to eat when this is all over. “Hey, Becky…remember that stuffed spinach-and-mushroom pizza they used to serve at Flying Tomato Brothers?” “Ohhhhh, YEAH! They were soooo good. Do you think we could ever find pizza that good again?” “I don’t know. Sounds like a road trip to me. There’s gotta be a FTB around somewhere. Or maybe we should go for the buffet at Thai-Wan-On?” “They had the BEST dumplings in the world! Oh, man…what I wouldn’t give for an order of crispy spring rolls right now…”
You get the idea.
The promise of bounty, sensual pleasure that does not involve any form of effort or strife, and total indulgence is very comforting. It focuses the imagination as one recalls the smell, look, and taste of one’s favorite foods. Why, just imagining what should be on the menu is an enjoyable mental exercise. Becky and I seem to always turn to food fantasies when times get tough. One night in Ontario, as the skies opened up and water literally poured through the not-formerly-known-to-be-leaky roof of our Biology Dept. tent, we set an imaginary table with a ten-course banquet, drifting away happily (once we had found two rare areas where water would not dump directly on our heads).
Another time, we had just set over a thousand small mammal traps in Nevada only to learn that our van was doomed to spend several days in the local repair shop. We faced the prospect of spending those days in the middle of nowhere, sleeping on hard ground with nothing but a cooler filled with bologna, yellow mustard, and horrid, generic cookies called “Duplex Cremes”. Never trust anything that uses the word “creme”. The food fantasies were flyin’, I can tell you!
So, what’s the connection with C.S. Marks, author? Not much, except that I am amused to find that I do the same thing when I write, sometimes. You can probably tell when I’m having a bad “comfort day” when a scene pops in that describes a cozy place with a nice fire and a good meal. The characters have no doubt been journeying (they do that a lot), and both they and I are in need of a good, homey descriptive paragraph or two. I love writing this stuff. Let’s see…we’re in Dûn Bennas, and winter’s coming on. It’s been raining and we’re all soaked to the skin, having just ridden all the way from the Greatwood. What would be good? Simple, but good? Ohhh…roast pork! And sweet potatoes with apples and cinnamon. And…again, you get the idea.
I also love to indulge in the ritual Becky and I have termed “dressing the characters”. This is another comfort-exercise (though it can sometimes be wish-fulfillment when dressing hunky male characters). In the aforementioned Dûn Bennas winter’s-coming-and-we’re cold-and-wet scene, the characters are given wonderful, soft woolens and velvets to wear. Ever snuggle up in a velvet tunic and new wool socks? Ohhh, yeah! And, of course, lovely moleskin breeches and a lofty, warm cloak to wrap up in. There’s a nice, gentle fire burning in the grate and you can just start to smell the pork-and-sweet-potatoes as they are carrying them into the room. All is now right with the world.
I realize that readers want a lot of angst-and-action these days. They want a fast-moving story with constant forward motion and very few delays or side trips. But some of those delays and side trips can be quite memorable. They break up the action so that the reader can take a breather–maybe even a comfort stop. And, in my opinion, they help bring the reader into the scene. These descriptions, while they can be overdone, are invaluable assets if executed well. There’s probably one more phenomenon creeping in here–the “mother hen” factor. I want to take care of my characters, to give them a break from angst-and-action, too. They have to look to me for comfort, because I put them through the wringer most of the time. They deserve the opportunity to enjoy a good meal, a warm bath, or a dry tunic, or at least to fantasize about it. There’s one scene–I forget which book it’s in–where one of the characters launches into a full-blown “food fantasy” during a time of hardship. While at least one of the other characters gets grumpy about it, the others encourage it. They know how comforting a good food fantasy can be.