Big Bad   4 comments

Despite the recent snow in the Rocky Mountains, it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Do your stories and worlds reference seasons and do they play into the plots of your books?

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Seasons hold incredible symbolism that sinks deep roots into literature. In our day of central heat and air-conditioning, it’s hard to remember that seasons mattered in ancient times. Agrarian societies depended on the seasons to plow, grow and harvest food. Agriculture united peoples, tribes, and groups. It was a means of achieving wealth. Food is life! So, naturally, people imbued seasons with all kinds of symbolic meanings.

Image result for image of winter
Feel the Cold

Maybe it’s because of the oft-cited stereotype of starting a book with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Or maybe it’s because we’re surrounded by supermarkets that fly in food from around the world. Maybe we’re just not as connected with nature today as our ancestors were. Maybe I’m a bit more connected with the season because we have extreme seasons here. In January-February we can have -40’F and last Friday (June 28) we had 85’F. That’s a 125′ difference. It’s hard not to notice that. Whatever the reason for the modern disconnect from the seasons, I’m amazed at how many writers overlook the weather as a useful tool in both setting and telling their story.

Idioms referencing the season or specific weather litter the English language. They don’t need explaining; we all understand exactly what people mean when they use one.

Weather conveys different moods

Spring = hope, new birth
Summer = adulthood, happiness
Autumn = preparing for old age
Winter = death
Sunshine = happiness, goodness
Storm = trouble, a change
Calm before the storm = trouble or a change ahead
Rainbow = hope, forgiveness, a link between two extremes (sun and rain)
Cloudy = confused, muddled, unclear
Clouds on horizon = trouble ahead
No wind = no change
Windy = changes or life
Rough weather = problems
Fog = confusion, unaware
Rain = depressed, badness
Snow = coldness, cleansing

I often use weather and the seasons as a setting tool to convey what’s going on in the story or in a character’s head without using a sledgehammer to convey the message.

In Daermad Cycle (The Willow Branch, Mirklin Wood and the upcoming Fount of Wraiths), my characters live in a medieval setting so they depend on the seasons to live. They use the seasons as their calendar. The magic system in that world can affect weather. For example, in The Willow Branch, the black mages cast a massive bit of sorcery to try and find and kill the One’s True King. This manifested in the physical world as storms – pounding rain and twisters. In the aftermath, the skies weep for days and reflect the depression one of the characters goes through upon realizing what his power has been used for.

In Transformation Project (an apocalyptic series four books and counting), mankind has wrought a few disasters on itself, but the ultimate “Big Bad” for my town is the changing seasons. They have to harvest the corn before the season passes and then it will be winter … on the Kansas prairie … without diesel fuel or natural gas.

Don’t worry. I spend plenty of time writing about other seasons, but I’m just going to focus on winter here. I suppose I’m more connected to winter than any other season because we have nearly six months of it here.

Winter brings long nights, when the earth sleeps and the imagination ripens visions both terrifying and sublime. It has served as literary inspiration ever since the early days of written storytelling – in the medieval saga Beowulf, the monster Grendel lays siege to the Danes for “twelve winters, seasons of woe” –  right up to present-day page-turners. It is a time of contrasts: winter’s snow conceals while its cold exposes. Perhaps it is a favorite season of writers because winter forces us indoors, carving out time for us to interact with our loved ones and become more reflective.

Certain images recur again and again throughout wintry literature. The transformation of a river in winter from a fluid pathway to a solid one can be magical or devastating, a glassy arena for figure skating or an icy grave. This shift can convey a powerful mood.

In Orlando, Virginia Woolf immortalized the Great Frost of 1608, when the Thames froze to a depth of 20 feet and birds “froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground.” She uses winter to examine the political dimensions of society, emphasizing the difference between the fantasy world of the royal court and the desperate circumstances of ordinary folk. Woolf creates a virtual snow globe of the Frost Fair, King James’ “carnival of the utmost brilliancy” on the river.

Winter settings add elements of claustrophobia and danger to a story. The snowbound landscape of an off-season resort hotel in the Rocky Mountains creates a terrifying backdrop for Stephen King’s masterpiece of horror, The Shining. King has said his inspiration was a late autumn visit to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, in the Colorado Rockies, in 1974. In the novel, Jack Torrance is a writer hired to be the hotel’s winter caretaker. He settles in with his wife Wendy and their five-year-old son Danny. The child has “the shine”, the ability “to understand things, to know things” that others cannot. Danny worries that his father is losing his marbles. King uses the isolation that begins with the first snowfall to emphasize the precarious mental states of the family and how little help is available.

“Flakes of snow swirled and danced across the porch. The Overlook faced it as it had for nearly three-quarters of a century, its darkened windows now bearded with snow, indifferent to the fact it was now cut off from the world… Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.”

As the novel progresses, King brilliantly uses winter weather to ratchet up the tension: “It snowed every day now, sometimes only brief flurries that powdered the glittering snow crust, sometimes for real, the low whistle of the wind cranking up to a womanish shriek that made the old hotel rock and groan alarmingly even in its deep cradle of snow.”

Beyond the season’s capacity to represent emotional and political turmoil and expose class differences, winter can simply be fatal. George RR Martin exploits winter’s symbolic power fully in A Game of Thrones, the first novel in his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. The book opens with a warning: “A cold wind was blowing out of the north….”

“Everyone talks of snow forty feet deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north,” Martin writes, “but the real enemy is the cold… It steals up on you and at first your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and you dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for awhile. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after awhile you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier to just sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end… ”

Equally powerful is Jack London’s 1908 realistic classic “To Build a Fire”. The story is set in the Yukon territory, a place of extremes. London’s dramatic pivot is simple: he pits man against nature when London’s protagonist breaks through a crust of ice:

“At the instant he broke through he felt the cold water strike his feet and ankles, and with half a dozen lunges he made the bank. He was quite cool and collected. The thing to do, and the only thing to do, was to build a fire. For another precept of the north runs: travel with wet socks down to twenty below zero; after that build a fire. And it was three times twenty below and colder, and he knew it.”

Survival in winter is a matter of skill and instinct. London’s hapless Tom Vincent is lacking in both. And the frozen land itself is indifferent to his struggles. If only we could be as indifferent to winter as it is to us.

When I write winter, the reader feels the cold because, as they say, write what you know and Alaskans know cold.

4 responses to “Big Bad

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  1. I love the use of weather in books, and I’m also in love with weather. When I’m reading a book and a storm of whatever kind shows up to further thwart the action, it increases the tension of it all. Also, I love Jack London.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve covered it brilliantly, all the extra tension and realism you can wring from the weather to enhance your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. and now Alaskans know heat as well. craziness!

    Like

    • Fairbanks always has had summer heat … 90’F in the summer, -50’F in winter. We’re interior, no seawater to warm our air in winter and to cool it in summer. But yeah, Anchorage and Southeast this year are experiencing about 10 degrees more than average. But it was warm like this in the 1860s and then dozens of whaling ships ended up entombed in ice in 1781, so I doubt it’s the end of the world. It’s just a cycle.

      Like

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