William Morrow Paperbacks
As a fan of The Great British Baking Show, I was intrigued by the premise of Good Taste, a novel by Caroline Scott that mixes romance, travel and food into an engaging story of an intrepid food writer in 1930s England. Stella Douglas is tasked with writing a history of English food designed to raise the spirits of the nation. Good Taste chronicles her adventures as she deals with personal and romantic trials and attempts to bolster the reputation of food known for its plainness. Caroline Scott discussed how she merged her love of history with a flair for fiction.
AUTHORLINK: You are a historian and freelance writer. Tell me about that work and what prompted you to write fiction?
“I’m fascinated by how past eras are both familiar and foreign…”
SCOTT: After completing a history PhD, I worked on three books about the First World War and wrote for history and genealogy magazines – but, at the same time, I always had novel plots occupying my thoughts and scenes and characters in development on my laptop. When I was a child my mum was writing a novel, so I grew up believing this was a perfectly normal and worthwhile occupation. By the time I was a university student, I was working on my own fiction projects and when I encountered interesting characters and situations in the course of historical research I’d instinctively find myself considering how I might animate and dramatize them. I began to approach publishers with fiction manuscripts and I was fortunate to spot that Simon & Schuster had an open submission window. I’m fascinated by how past eras are both familiar and foreign and I think that preoccupation will always influence my writing.
AUTHORLINK: How hard/rewarding was the transition from a strict adherence to facts to creating people and plot points?
“If the scaffolding of historical facts is sound, we can have some freedom and fun exploring the spaces…”
SCOTT: It’s liberating! As a history writer, it’s often frustrating to discover that the facts you need to bridge the gaps in events aren’t accessible. In part, this was what prompted me to write The Poppy Wife; I’d been researching my great-grandfather’s experience of the First World War and the evidence to explain certain actions simply wasn’t there in the historical record. There’s more creative freedom in writing fiction, of course, but with historical fiction that can only be exercised within the parameters of viability. If the scaffolding of historical facts is sound, we can have some freedom and fun exploring the spaces in between.
AUTHORLINK: Where did the idea for Good Taste come from?
“This book was inspired by reading Florence White’s Good Things in England…”
SCOTT: This book was inspired by reading Florence White’s Good Things in England, a collection of traditional recipes which was published in 1932. Florence White was probably the first British female freelance food journalist and by the 1920s she’d developed a conviction that our food was in peril; travelling through the country she saw that the customs of home cooking, preserving and growing locally were dying out, and so she set out on a crusade to preserve the old flavors and methods. Through press articles and a series of radio broadcasts, she appealed to the public to submit their memories and recipes. She had over a thousand responses, and extracts from these letters are reproduced in Good Things in England. I thought this could be a fascinating assignment to give to a fictional character.
I was also writing this book in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum; at that time there were lots of debates in the media about what it means to be British, about trade and immigration and the degree to which our history interconnects with that of mainland Europe. My head was full of these arguments and this felt like an interesting way to explore them.
AUTHORLINK: Stella is a modern woman living in a transitional time when the shadow of the Victorian Age still looms over traditions and customs. Talk to me about building that character and what you did to make her so vivid and authentic.
SCOTT: I have a long-held interest in women’s lives in the interwar period and enjoy creating characters that push against the boundaries of conventional behavior. In this book I wanted to write a career-minded, independent young woman and explore how her outlook would be challenged by the professional and personal expectations of the society around her. To understand her mindset I read lots of novels and biographies from the 1930s and listened to sound recordings of women talking about their lives. Developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing fiction and I feel like I cohabit with them for the duration of my work on the novel. I could hear Stella’s voice quite clearly in my head, she was a fully-rounded character to me and I knew how she would respond to various situations. I hope the reader will believe in her too.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for the book. Was there anything particularly fascinating that you had to leave out?
SCOTT: I come from a family of cooks and inherited a large library of recipe books – both printed and hand-written and many of them passed down through several generations. As well as my own resources, I read every history of cookery that I could access and studied manuscripts in online archives. I tried out recipes and travelled, going to Ely in pursuit of eels, to Cornwall to learn about clotted cream, and returning to my native Lancashire and Yorkshire to remind myself of the dishes that would have been familiar to Stella and her family.
In the first draft of the novel I interspersed the narrative chapters with sections of text from Stella’s book, ‘How the English Eat’. On the advice of my editor, I took these out and replaced them with the letters from the public. Looking back, I feel this was sound advice as the novel would have been too information-heavy otherwise. All the research I did wasn’t lost as it supports the text.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing Good Taste and how did you overcome them?
SCOTT: I was researching this novel at the time of the Covid pandemic and that meant I couldn’t travel as widely as I would have liked. I overcame this by using written and online resources and drawing on my memories of places and tastes. Now that I’m able to travel again, I look forward to following Stella’s journey through England.
AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for writers who want to include food as a centerpiece to their stories?
“For me, the best food writers employ all their senses and put passion into their text.”
SCOTT: Done well, food writing can be engaging and pleasurable, calling on all our senses, evoking memories and making connections between us. Even food that’s challenging – I’m thinking of the eels and offal in my text – provokes a response and can help draw a reader into a situation and story. Moreover, you can say a lot about a character by showing their responses to food. Some of my favorite cookery books can be read like novels, as they draw us into a time and place, have a sense of personality and take us on a journey, and I considered why I feel a particular attraction to these texts; writers like Elizabeth David are wonderful at evoking flavors, scents and atmosphere, her descriptions have color, texture and warmth, and I long to be sitting at the same Provençal table. For me, the best food writers employ all their senses and put passion into their text.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
SCOTT: I’m contracted to write another two books for my UK publisher and I’m currently editing my next novel, which will probably be released in 2024. It’s called ‘Greenfields’ and it’s about a utopian collective in Gloucestershire in the 1930s; a group of idealists and artists who came together after the First World War, wanting to find a peaceable, kinder, fairer way of living. The novel follows events when the grounds of the stately home that they occupy are sold to a property developer. It’s all about the tensions between ideals and practicalities and the not-in-my-back-yard moral dilemma – something which is still relevant today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caroline Scott is a best-selling British author of historical fiction. After completing a PhD in History, at the University of Durham, Caroline worked as a researcher in Belgium and France. She has a particular interest in the experience of women during the interwar period and in the challenges faced by the returning soldier – themes which she’s explored in her writing. Her first novel, The Photographer of the Lost (Simon & Schuster) was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club Pick and was released in the US as The Poppy Wife (William Morrow). When I Come Home Again was one of The Times’ Best Books of 2020. Caroline is originally from Lancashire, in the north of England, but now lives in southwest France.