Research and the Author: Fruit

I wish I could have thought up a snappy title for this, but ‘Food for Thought’ is probably best kept for another article and ‘Fruit of Research’ was way too cheesy. Remember the reason for research is to stop the author looking like an idiot. This is definitely a piece that can be ignored. However I thought I’d mention a few things that may be useful, especially to those writing speculative fiction. The bag of apples and carton of strawberries that you load into your cart in the supermarket may not necessarily be the same as the apples and strawberries available to someone in medieval Europe. If that detail is important to you then this is a reminder to check stuff like ‘history of the strawberry’ to get the background. If it isn’t, just keep it in mind and keep writing.

If we’re talking about Kurt and Gwendolyn in Maine, most fruit is going to be available for most of the time. However you can slant things to reinforce the plot. If it’s November 10th then there will be plenty of cranberries around, perhaps even some grown locally. It’s a great way to show the run up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fresh strawberries, however, are likely to be imported, expensive and possibly not the best flavour. If you want to give a sense of summer, however, then perhaps our two characters can be buying fresh strawberries from a roadside stall in July. There probably won’t be many locally grown mangoes, though, if you want to be realistic. It’s easy to check what’s available and when and use to those facts to give depth to the story.

Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn in London have less choice. There were some ships that used ice and salt to preserve their cargo but they were few and far between and obviously there are no delicate imports coming in by air (depending on the plot, of course). Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn may have attended dinner parties where the pineapple was rented – I’ll let you google the background to that, because it’s fun and so very human. Bananas were also a curiosity, mentioned in Jules Verne Around the World in Eight Days. Even in the great port of London, most food was seasonal. However, as sugar was now widely available, there were plenty of preserved fruits. There were even such exotic preserves coming in such as pickled mango or preserved ginger.

There are problems with researching fruit. Determined aristocrats would try and grow almost anything in heated glasshouses, and fast ships with captains wanting to make money could make a lot of different fruits available to those with vast wealth. Researching ‘when did pineapples reach UK’ tends to show results going back to the seventeenth century and the nobility. In reality, fresh pineapple was still something amazing and unusual for most people when I was a youngster in the seventies. When Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn were fighting against evil around Whitechapel and Limehouse, ordinary people still had food that was either local or easily imported. The trick is to work out when things become widely available. The dark Count Dominic may flaunt his wealth by having fresh strawberries served in November at his society dinner parties together with expensive preserved cherries and apricots in brandy, but the poor wretches he preys on in the slums of the East End are limited to apples or perhaps roast chestnuts from a barrow, together with sugary jam and sticky preserves. If you’re not sure, keep it simple and hurry past.

Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer have a different set of challenges. Soft fruit like strawberries and raspberries is tough to preserve without sugar, freezers or refrigeration. It’s best to eat that sort of fruit as soon as possible after picking. Some fruit could be preserved in honey or wine, but that would be a luxury item. Even the fruits that were easier to store, such as apples, didn’t necessarily travel well. You had to stick with something local.

I’m going to be honest here, this is a rabbit hole that could swallow me whole. This is the point where I decide that no-one needs to know the menu. If I’m going to jump into that, I need more than a safety line; I need a parachute. Do I really need to know details if Gwendolyn the Healer presents Kurt the Barbarian with a dish of fruit? It’s just that a dish of fruit sounds so very drab compared to, for example, a dish of strawberries/bowl of fresh figs/some juicy guava.  

It’s important to remember that you created this world and therefore you have the absolute power to put anything anywhere. If you want to have stands of mango trees and date palms dotted around the icy wastes of the frozen north then you have the power to put them there. You run the risk of looking like an idiot, but it’s your world and your choice.

There are issues to consider which can add or subtract to your world building. Humans are meddling creatures who don’t leave things alone. Selective breeding of fruit and vegetables has been going on since the first farmers, so what the Romans knew as, for example, melons are considerably different to the melons you get today. If you are tying your world closely to real world societies and cultures, it’s worth having a quick glance at the history of food in that area. Not only have humans changed the fruit by careful breeding, but they’ve carried fruit with them as they travelled the world. Wonderful coffee comes from Brazil, but the plant originated in Ethiopia. Amazing tea comes from Kenya, but tea originated in China. If Kurt the Barbarian is looking over the fields that are sticking closely to 12th century Oxford, he won’t be looking at fields of pumpkins. For the same reason, if Gwendolyn the Healer is searching for herbs in the marketplace of Tarsh, it’s perfectly reasonable for her to bustle past a stand selling pomegranates or cucumbers, but even in that great crossroads, you won’t find papaya. And if Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer are exploring the hills and coves on a tropical island, they’re not going to find many pear trees.

Of course, if you’re creating your own world, you can always make up names for the local fruit. I avoid this if I can as I am very bad at taking notes, I lack focus and I worry that the fnura fruit that I describe as yellow and sweet in chapter two could end up red and spicy in chapter ten. This is why I stick closely to real world equivalents. It’s to stop me looking like an idiot. And that is the entire point of research. Well, that and I love going down rabbit holes.

You can find more of the articles on Research and the Author here. I’d love to hear from you and please let me know if there are any areas you would like me to discuss.

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