Saturday, May 25, 2013

Focus on the Seasons



I’m fortunate to live in an area where life is still dictated by seasons. I watch the natural world shift from red to grey to pinks to greens every year and start all over again. My neighbors fertilize and seed, cut hay, bale, then go quiet in front of fireplaces. Cities have their own seasonal rhythm. Can’t get a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha in July can you?

How does this affect writing. For me, it touches tone, setting, and voice. To explain, I’ll use my own community, the Appalachian mountains, as an example. 

Winter is stark and cold. It’s quiet. People gravitate indoors, outdoor sports are at a minimum. 

Spring is alive. It’s like the world wakes up and farmers spring to action. People are happy. It’s hopeful. 

Summer is thick and green. It’s a wild world and in ways more dangerous than winter with snakes and bugs, and thick foliage to hide things away. But it’s also the time of tourists, and gem-mining, and seasonal ice cream stands. 

Fall is beautiful and vivid. It’s purposeful with start of school and approaching holidays, storing up for winter, but also dangerous as hunters take to the woods.

TONE:

Let’s imagine I want to write a murder mystery. I wouldn’t choose spring. People are too happy that winter is over. The season wouldn’t work for me, mostly because I love spring and couldn’t bring myself to darken the tone. Fall would work, simply because of all the hunters, but it’s more of an accidental murder season. Now winter and summer, perfect tones for murder. 

Winter is bare, and even though you can see forever with no leaves, the woods and roads are quieter than usual. There’s a lot you can get away with when people are holed up in front of wood stoves (if you know the Frankie and Johnny story, you know what I’m talking about - during a snow storm Frankie chopped up her husband and burned him in the fireplace. It was weeks before the murder was discovered.) 

Summer, in ways, is a more interesting choice because it’s alive. With people, with wildlife, with foliage. Murder in summer adds a twist of tension because of this dual nature. The murderer could be standing next to you ordering a scoop of double mint chip, the body tucked away in a ravine a few hundred yards away, but the trees are so thick with green, you’d never know. Creepy, right?

Which brings me to setting.

SETTING:

So, I’ve got this murder mystery idea, and I’ve narrowed it down to winter or summer. Now is the time to get a bit intentional. What elements do you want to be able to use in your setting? School? Well, your choice is made. Winter. But maybe you want to build into this mystery. So you realize, I need to start my story in fall, and bridge over into winter. Great. No need to neglect our other two seasons, but have a purpose for the choice. 

Which season is going to spotlight your story to its best advantage? Are there technical things about the season to help create conflict? I think about Ilsa Blick’s book Ashes. The winter setting creates tons of conflict for this world disrupted by an electro-magnetic pulse. It’s also Minnesota. But zombie teens in the deep south? Summer would be a more tension filled setting. (Think The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell)

Know why you pick the season you pick. What are the advantages and choices it will bring to your story?

VOICE:

Okay, so this is a bit more esoteric and I hope I can make some sort of sense with this. But I think season affects voice. Mostly because voice and tone are inter-related to me. When I’m being a good writer, my setting becomes a character, which means it has its own voice. I know, seasons and settings don’t talk. But they inform word choice.

Here’s an example. In NO PLACE TO FALL, my protagonist, Amber, would describe things differently in summer and winter. She might look at a barn on the roadside in summer and notice the poison ivy climbing its sides, strangling it, squeezing it shut, bringing it to its knees like the church hens do to her Mama.  In the winter, she might see that same barn, but it’d look more like something fragile, windows cracked, boards splintered, one heavy snow or false word from caving it in on itself.

Yes, Amber has her own distinct voice, but the seasons affect that voice. Think about it. During the dead of winter, your thoughts of summer are memories, they’re filtered. To make your story more immediate, have your characters’ voice reflect the season you’ve chosen.



Thanks for stopping by! Do you use seasons with intention in your writing? Can you think of a book already published that does it exceptionally well? 

16 comments:

  1. I've decided to never order mint chocolate chip ice cream while standing next to you ;)

    Yes, I think about the seasons a lot. I also tend to think of fall and spring working best for transition, they are similar in a lot of ways and much faster moving. Hmm. In my mind they also make good ending and beginning points for stories.

    Great post.

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  2. Yep. If I order strawberry you're safe. ;0)

    And interesting about transitions. Though Popsicle is set primarily in spring and is a hopeful sort of book.

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  3. Great post, JRo. For some reason I seem to stick with summer, in Texas, which is brutal. I never gave it too much thought as to why I seem to center my stories in the dog days of summer, but now that you mention it, I'll have to start paying closer attention.

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    1. Maybe because it's most impactful to you?

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  4. My stories all seem to be set in autumn. I'm interested in the transitional periods. Things are changing, nothing is static. Dying leaves, autumn rain, mud, reflection and endings. Not too cold to go outside, not smothered by summer tourists.

    I've tried writing stories set in other seasons, but the kind of story I most like to write is perfectly suited to autumn.

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    1. Interesting how you & Patty had similar thoughts but different responses to the transitional times. Maybe autumn & spring are slightly less defined.

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  5. I think next time I read a book I'll have to take note of how the author incorporates the seasons into the story and their effect on me, the reader. I do admit that I get very caught up in the lives of the characters while reading and what they are going through, weather and seasons do affect the story setting and events, no doubt about it. I just have to be more aware next time. Thanks for an interesting post, Geoff.

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    1. Thanks for stopping in Geoff. See Bethany's note below!

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  6. Oh, I just finished reading Snow Falling On Cedars, which used weather and the seasons beautifully. The whole novel is framed around a court case in a snow storm, but throughout the story, as people testify and remember, it switches to other times and other seasons. Each season enhances the mood of the particular scene, and as we reach the climax we also reach the height of the snowstorm. I LOVE when weather and seasons are used to such great effect.

    Great post, JRo!

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    1. Wasn't this a movie? Or maybe I read the book, but I know that title is familiar. Cool, I'll have to go reread it now.

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    2. It was a book first, and then a movie was made with Ethan Hawk as Ishmael Chambers. You should definitely read it! In my top 10.

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  7. You know, I've never thought about the seasons that way. In King of the Mutants, which takes place in the summer in Florida, the hot weather seriously affects the character and the world I've painted-- paint peeling off like sunburned skin, etc. I guess I use seasons subconsciously.

    Anyway, I'm glad you wrote this post. I am now more aware!

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    1. I think most of writing is subconscious so I'm trying to figure out how to talk about what I just do. Ya know?

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  8. So I've always wanted to write a novel about winter (my favorite season) in New England (ie MA, Maine, etc)....to find out an author had already done it! :) At first I was mad. Then I read the book and was blown away at how awesome it was. (YA, similar to John Green, called 'Wintertown')

    I also feel that seasons change things- i.e. tone, description, voice. Someone who hates summer wouldn't necessarily be excited for a summer job at the local ice cream stand, for example :)

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    1. Have you read Fractured by Megan Miranda? Total winter book. I haven't heard of the one you mentioned but will have to check it out.

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  9. That's fascinating about season informing voice. I do choose season of the year deliberately when I write, but hadn't thought about a connection to voice.

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