Happy winter solstice, everyone!
I was poking around through some of my older writing projects this weekend, the ones that could maybe use a bit of an edit and update. In one of them (City of the Dead), two of the characters from vastly different latitudes are getting ready for a summer solstice celebration and one comments on what a weirdly big deal solstices are here, before admitting, with a glance to the sky and the still-up sun late at night, that he supposed it made sense. It’s a bit fun and weird reading this super-super-summer scene in the absolute middle of winter. (For my friends from somewhat more equatorial climes, I live at about 65°N and, like my made-up story land, solstices are very dramatic here and are a very big deal.)
Of all my stories, City of the Dead is probably the one most closely linked with the seasons, and with the environment in general. The extremes of dark and light, of cold and warmth, effect everything that the characters do. Adventuring does not happen in the dead middle of winter (emphasis on the word ‘dead’). Travel is difficult and dangerous, and in certain places, impossible. Hunting trips still take place, but prolonged warfare is out of the question. Really, the best thing you can do for a pretty significant chunk of the year is just hunker down and hope you don’t run out of wood and food.
Unfortunately, that also makes it kind of hard for me to write this story “out of season”. The summer solstice party scene? Yeah, I gotta wait until summer to write scenes like that. I can manage for editing, but when I’m drafting and the feel of the season really has to be gotten right, I need to be in the right season. In the pitch black of winter, it’s hard to remember the shimmering green of birch leaves in the breezy sunlight. In the never ending daylight of summer, it’s hard to remember how deep the sky is on a clear, 40° below zero night is, so vast and deep you could almost drown in it. It can be hard to describe the bite of cold on your bare cheeks, or the frightening, creeping numbness that starts in your toes and doesn’t let go until you’re safe inside again. And it can be hard to remember what it feels like to lay in the green grass in a hot summer day, dozing to the whine of mosquitoes and the chatter of warblers and chickadees, your sweat-damp shirt heavy against your chest.
So while this is kind of a pain during drafting mode, it does make for really good place-based scenes. The environment in the Star Daughter series (of which City of the Dead is the first) is almost a character—a really powerful, unimpressed-by-you-and-anything-you-do character. It has its quirks and things you have to look out for when dealing with it. And it doesn’t give a used fig what you want or what you’re trying to do. (Trying to avenge your brother? Don’t care. Trying to find your lost love? Don’t care. Trying to save the world? Don’t. Care.)
Of course, climate and environment don’t have to be the only things that I immerse myself in while writing in. When I’m really stuck on a scene, it often helps to listen to “white noise” recordings of the setting I’m writing: crackling fires in a sitting room, campouts in windy nights, frog-infested lakesides, stormy nights, tide-pounded seashores. The internet is vast, my friends. Besides that, I’ve always been all about researching experiences that I’m planning to put my characters through—whether that’s sleeping out in the woods with only a cloak all night, trying to catch a piglet unaided (in a skirt, no less), or coercing my husband into waterboarding me. If we’re supposed to write what we know, it only makes sense to expand and deepen our knowledge and experiences as much as possible. And if you aren’t really feeling getting skewered through the spleen in the name of art, there’s a wealth of research materials available to let you read about it instead (or listen on podcasts, or watch videos, etc.). Makes cleanup much easier too.
How about you fine folks? What are some ways that you immerse yourself in the setting of your stories? Let me know in the comments below!
Again, happy solstice, and may you have joy and peace on any of the winter holidays you might be celebrating this month! Until next week, happy writing!