The Art of Wintering: On the Most Useful Season for a Writer
Winter is unpredictable and unavoidable, terrifying and beautiful – so how does it impact the stories we hear and tell?
What does winter mean to you? Mince pies and Christmas lights? Traffic jams and no trains? Drunken relatives and Quality Street? Woolly jumpers and bed socks?
Far more than just ‘Christmastime’, the chilly weather is an engine of change. It has us retreating to the warmth of our houses, picnics and suntans forgotten. It is long nights, cold winds, hard ground and freezing water. The cold is biting, cruel and dangerous, and makes the warm glow of home an asylum. The season changes our world from colour to monochrome – and yet there’s beauty in this too. The twinkle of frost; the air so still and silent; the blanket of brightness the sky gives at the peak of the day.
Winter is unpredictable and unavoidable, terrifying and beautiful – so how does it impact the stories we hear and tell? Far more than a backdrop, it can be an atmosphere, an inciting incident, and, in some cases, almost a character itself. A powerful tool to say the least.
If you’re unconvinced, just picture your favourite winter-based stories set in the summertime:
Ignoring its festive element, would A Christmas Carol have the same impact if Scrooge was sprawled across his bed in the heat of summer when first visited by ghosts? Or is it important that he’s bundled under covers? That the night is long and dark?
Winter is a powerful tool for manifesting symbolic change in characters and circumstances: it forces characters to hole away with their isolating or communal needs and desires; it generates the kind of atmosphere that almost inevitably deepens our sense of our own vulnerabilities.
In Stephen King’s haunting novel Misery, how different would our impressions be if Paul Sheldon was trapped with a madwoman in autumn instead of winter? What is the symbolism of his subsequent escape when it’s warmer?
Consider the movie Frozen (no, not the Disney one – the one directed by Adam Green) or, the more recent, Wind River? The cold often has an unforgiving, almost sinister, monster-like quality; far more than just a dramatic backdrop. Perhaps that the opening to Frankenstein is set in a vindictive, freezing wasteland is part of what makes it so memorable.
Maybe you’re sitting there humming, ‘It was only a winter’s tale/ Just another winter’s tale...’ like David Essex (ask your mother if you don’t know who I mean).
Or maybe there really is more to winter than jingle bells, stodgy food and mistletoe…
Winter creates an imposing atmosphere.
In literature, atmosphere is the feeling or mood that an author evokes in a reader through the descriptive language they use. Dare I use Twilight as an example here? (Forgive me.) Shoddy writing and vampires aside, Meyer’s decision to have her protagonist (flimsy as she is) move from burning Arizona to rainy Washington is an interesting one – after all, Bella could have previously lived somewhere cool before.
By juxtaposing her sunny previous life with her new town, the reader cannot help but notice the change of atmosphere. By going from the hot and open expanse of a desert to dense, wet forest, the feeling is less relaxed and instead becomes tense and claustrophobic. There’s a sense something is going to happen (it just so happens that, in this case, that something is sparkly vampires).
Mystic, mysterious, magic--winter helps us escape.
And so, Lucy Penvensie finds herself in Narnia. C. S. Lewis transports the reader from a rainy summer’s day in war time Britain to a magical land of everlasting winter almost seamlessly – and yet the reader finds themselves totally immersed in this twist instead of rallying against it. Rather than merely changing location, it is important to note that Lewis chose to change the season too: while Lewis could’ve began the story in the winter, he chose the height of summer. By changing the weather, the reader’s immersion into this new land is total; weather and climate are inescapable and you cannot ignore it. Lucy does not just find herself in a wood but a snowy wood and so there is no debating that she is elsewhere; the life she led before stepping through the wardrobe remains just there, behind her in the ‘real’ world.
Winter holds, and sometimes hides, the promise of new life.
Continuing to look at The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch’s curse of an everlasting winter is perhaps one of the most striking elements of the book. When her powers begin to weaken in the second half of the novel, the snow and ice start ‘melting in earnest and patches of green grass [begin] to appear in every direction’ and, later, the melting snow causes a river to bring ‘a wonderful, roaring, thundering yellow flood’. As winter leaves the land, the chance for new life (not just for the land but the people and creatures in it) blooms uncontrollably. There is no doubt that the weakening of the Witch has a dramatic impact.
Winter can manifest character traits.
Another way to consider the cold is the ways is does or does not affect a character. As the seasons change, how do they react to the cold? Are they prepared for it? Motivated by it? Inconvenienced by it? Do they complain about it and look forward to spring? Or relish the frosty air? In A Faraway Smell of Lemon from Rachel Joyce’s wintery short story collection, the protagonist, Binny, steps into a shop she’s never been to before to escape confrontation and the cold weather – and by extension, the trouble of her chaotic life for a brief time. At the beginning, for Binny winter means the stress of Christmas and a reminder all of the things she has failed to do. However, by the time she returns to the cold, she has discovered that winter is far more than that. It is, like her problems, something that both manageable and ephemeral. Instead of wishing winter away she is going to relish it until springtime.
Thinking about how to use this stuff in your next piece? If so, why not try setting your next piece of writing somewhere cold, or rewriting a story that isn't quite working, this time using winter as a backdrop? It can be surprising what a difference a change of seasons can make, how various climatic and sensory aspects of setting influence the whole shape of a text.
No matter what your view, it's undeniable that winter and storytelling are intrinsically tied; it's the one season that ensures we spend lots of time indoors with one another and so stories are bound to take root and fill our imaginations. Looking further back, when seeking warmth and comfort around a fire, people through time have made this the time and place to share stories.
Maybe this is why in Iceland they have a tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve? Why not give try it this year?
by Jodie R Reed