The Taste of a Story

Okay, this one may get a bit weird, because it’s so tricky to describe the way our brains react to things, including words. I may be getting a bit into synesthesia here, or some third cousin of it, or I may just be failing to explain quite how stories resonate in my mind. Maybe none of you will have a clue what I’m talking about; on the other hand, maybe I’m writing about something common to many writers.

Read on to find out!

I started reading early, and when I add things up, I have now been reading for close to 4.5 decades. That’s a lot of books. I started writing probably less than ten years after the reading and, with a few years of gap that I wish weren’t there, have been writing since. That’s a lot of words, even if so very many of them never ended up a complete book or story. When I look back at the things I’ve read and the things I’ve written, they all have a taste.

Not a taste with actual flavors, but a distinct feel–like walking down the street and seeing someone at a distance and just knowing–from the rhythm of their walk or the way they carry their shoulders–who it is. The young mysteries of Phyllis Whitney, the ones I fell in love with at about 12, have a lightness, because–I think–that’s what I felt every time I opened one…the lightness of recognition, of finding myself in her characters. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazon books have a speed to them, a rushing of wind and salt air, that came with following adventures like none I’d ever taken and none I could ever imagine myself being brave enough, independent enough to take. (That “taste” came back the day I found myself in England, alone, hiking over the same hills Ransome had written about.) Wuthering Heights is dense layers of chocolate–some mellow, some incredibly dark–and a few threads of intense cherry brandy running through it all.

The taste thing goes for my own writing. My MG mystery has a flavor of fun, at least for me–cartwheels and unicycles and cotton candy. The picture book I’m working on feels just a little like a jig, or a game of hopscotch, with a plate of peanut-butter-and-jelly crackers. And my YA is darkening shadows, twisting alleys, and the bitter dregs of a nearly empty, too-cold cup of tea.

At least, these are what I’m trying to cook up. The taste of the books I’ve read stay the same for me, with slight variations as I reread them again at different ages. The flavor of the books I’m writing is part of my vision–a taste that came to me with the original idea, and the thing  I want readers to walk away with, to carry with them when they close the cover and put the book back on the shelf.

There is no cotton candy in my mystery, no peanut-butter in my picture book, and I don’t really even know if the characters in my YA drink tea or coffee. When I close my eyes, though, and think–not of the actual words and sentences, not of the plot or the character development, but maybe, yes, a little bit about the voice–these are the flavors I look for again. I use them as a touchstone, a reminder of the feelings I want people to experience when they read my stories, to carry with them when they’ve finished the books. These are the “tastes” toward which I write.

What about you? Anyone out there have a better label than taste for that feeling each book carries, even before you can find it in the written words?


  1. This is fascinating, Becky. It’s like a shorthand for all those elusive qualities of a book — voice and style and sensibility.

    The first thing that leaps into mind with my WIP is Lapsang Souchong, and leaves burning in autumn. Counterintuitive, I suppose, since neither appears (or can appear, since the book is set in winter in 17th century England). But smokiness, and the smell of the sea when a storm comes… that’s what floats up.


    • beckylevine says:

      And now how much do I want to read this book? See–it’s that FEEL that we have about our works, that we want to convey. I think it’s maybe what’s so hard about first drafting for me–I’m keeping that feel in my head but not seeing it show up yet.

      When I think of your book The Perfect Red, there’s sunshine and ocean swells and somebody dancing with a little flute-pipe, I think.


  2. claudine says:

    This is wonderful.
    I don’t have the “taste” analogy for it, but I think my current book is optimism in darkness.
    I haven’t looked at things this way before, but I understand what you mean, and I can appreciate that you are able to see with different eyes.
    I’m speechless (only, I can talk anyway. haha.)


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