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Inventing A Genre: Culinary Gothic

When I started out as a hopeful young writer some twenty years ago, I learned about genre from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook by studying the types of submissions agents and publishers accepted. There was a high demand for women's fiction, romance, literary, and horror, and a lot less interest in crime. Over the last ten years bookshelf labels have shifted as, for example, fantasy has overtaken horror. Now Neil Gaiman writes of genre, 'I think the rules are crumbling and I think the barriers are breaking'.

It couldn't have happened soon enough for me. My first novel was a high-blown piece of literary historical fiction, a choice I would now give my younger self a stern telling-off for. It was probably by choosing such an exclusive genre that I condemned myself to seven long years of the dreaded rejection cycle and its burden of negative emotions. 

Then in 2002 I saw a small ad in The Author magazine and wrote what became a non-fiction hit about my own wedding, The Wedding Diaries (2004, written as Laura Bloom). After my home-baked wedding cake featured in the book's publicity I began contributing recipes to magazines. Purely for fun I entered baking contests, eventually winning the prize of a cookery course in France that left me fascinated with French patisserie.

Still my quest to publish a novel continued. I was by now inching towards a big question: what was the unique story that I and no one else could tell readers? My taste in books was growing darker, building on my life-long love affair with the gothic – from a childhood terror of the apple-poisoning witch in Disney's Snow White, through Edgar Allan Poe and Dickens to Daphne Du Maurier and Sarah Waters.

So when I found myself in the kitchen of the National Trust's Erddig Hall and read the evocative historic recipes, I was a frustrated novelist scanning my environment for a unique story. Like two live wires, writing and cooking ignited and sparked a distinctive idea. I knew at once that I would write about an irrepressible young cook packed off on a journey to Italy, in the manner of such Gothic classics as Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. But instead of a supernatural tale I would use the techniques of the modern crime novel – plot twists, misdirection and murder. I learned about Georgian cookery with TV food historian Ivan Day and spent time with historical re-enactors to get to grips with corsets, tinder boxes and quill pens. I researched the routes of Grand Tourists, read their diaries, and most obsessively of all, imagined the language and perspective of a food-obsessed Georgian cook.

Four years later, emailing An Appetite for Violets to my first choice of agent I knew it was my best and most original work. Several years on, after my manuscript had been much polished and revised, I got my book deals in the UK and US and sold a series of foreign rights. On the eve of my book launch in London, Fay Weldon wrote that I had created a new genre, the ‘culinary gothic.’ 

So what do I think culinary gothic means? To me, it is a style of writing that uses food to characterise elements of mystery, death and the unnatural. It need not always be grotesque or terrifying. In An Appetite For Violets  I wanted to convey the way recipes were transmitted down the generations, passing on moments of pleasure by otherwise voiceless women. They are what we now call memorialisations, rich connective materials in social memory passed down the generations. My heroine reflects that the recipes she collects are 'scribbled down like beacons against the coming darkness...messages from the dead, saying Taste me''. 

At the novel's centre is the unsettling, sickly flavour of violets. This represents the final twist in the plot; the corruption at the heart of the mystery. Other foods I have chosen for their gothic natures are archaic festival foods like 'frumenty', a miniaturised sugarpaste four-poster bed on a bride cake, and an abundance of unnatural intoxicants, poisons and aphrodisiacs. 

In my second novel, The Penny Heart the recipes are even more sinister, from narcotic Poppy Drops to a tiny momento mori of a swaddled baby made of sugar. Set in the 1790s in a dilapidated mansion in the North of England and on the wild shores of Australia and New Zealand, the novel explores the idea of a malevolent cook hidden down in the depths of the kitchen. This time I wanted to tell a different, darker truth – about quackery, seduction and taboo foods – and the extraordinary trust we reveal when we eat food made by a stranger's hand.

With hindsight, playing with genre has given me that extra edge to get published, plus an all important hook to draw reviewers to my writing. Yet there have been challenges. Some readers have been confused; my books have been described as many different genres, from 'cosy' crime to romance, horror, historical fiction, suspense and mystery. And now, after two culinary novels, I feel I've written plenty about food and my third novel will have a different, more ambitious theme. 

My advice to new writers is to be aware of the market but still dig hard and deep into your own identity. Unearth your own unique voice and style. In a world where agents and publishers are searching for distinctive manuscripts, originality will always be highly prized. And the only genuine source of that is what you bring of your unique self to your writing.

An Appetite For Violets is published by Hodder and Stoughton and was a Booklist Top Ten Crime Debut. The Penny Heart is a Sunday Times Summer Read, available in paperback from the 28 July 2016. It is also published by St Martin’s Press in the US as A Taste For Nightshade. Visit Martine's website and Facebook. Follow her on Twitter here.