Viv Hampshire tries adding a flavour of the season to her fiction
Yes, it’s easy to make a Christmas story feel Christmassy. Describe the icy weather outside, mention decorating the tree and wrapping the presents, bring families together for a festive meal and the pull of a cracker, and everyone can instantly imagine the scene. Use a snowy cover for your novel or illustrate your short story with a suitable wintry fireside scene, and the job’s done.
Similarly, bright sunshine, the lush green of the fields, or a bikini by the pool are all we need to transport our readers straight into the heart of summer. But what about the rest of the year, the bits in between, when things aren’t quite so black and white? What suitable hints can we drop then to let our readers know the time of year without being way too heavy-handed about it? Like adding salt and pepper to a dish, we want to introduce just a hint of flavour but we don’t want to add so much that we drown out the story underneath!
I have known from the start that the plot of the novel I am working on now will reach its climax at Christmas. I also know the fairly short time period of just six weeks in which the action takes place, so all I had to do was open my diary or peer at the calendar on the kitchen wall and work backwards, to realise that quite a big chunk of my book (and crucially its opening scene-setting chapters) ‘happens’ in November.
November is one if those ‘not-quite-sure-what-to-expect’ kind of months. The chilly Novembers we have come to expect are characterised by foggy mornings and drizzling rain, with leaves changing colour and falling from the trees, and berries starting to appear, ready to feed the birds in the winter ahead. Yes, the warm weather lingered longer this year so some of nature’s usual pointers have come a little late, but mentions of the brown and gold leaves, either crisp or soggy underfoot, and a character pulling on a woolly hat and scarf before venturing out into the wind are probably enough to set the general scene for November, or at least for Autumn anyway.
But I wanted more. I needed to give a sense of the clock ticking, each scene/day/week in the story taking us nearer and nearer to Christmas and the grand finale of the novel. The weather changes would be fairly subtle over such a short time span, so how would I make that passing of time clear to the readers without awkwardly dropping in dates at every turn?
Here’s where the calendar came in handy again. Just reading through mine gave me ideas I could filter into my story as pointers to the passing of time. My main or subsidiary characters could hear fireworks at night, visit a display, light a bonfire or just pick up a dead rocket from the grass some days later. They could pass a window displaying celebratory Diwali candles. They could wear a poppy, watch a remembrance service or parade, or perhaps think of a loved one or ancestor lost in a war. Or they could spot a Scottish flag flying or pass someone wearing a kilt in the street as St Andrews Day arrived on 30th, thus subtly marking the story’s transition into December. None of these things had to necessarily be major parts of the plot. Just having them mentioned in passing or dropped into the background was enough to indicate the date.
It also helped enormously that I was actually writing many of the November scenes during November itself. What was happening outside my window, at the shops, and in the news day by day? All this could help me sprinkle a hint of authenticity into my storyline, setting and dialogue.
What birds were visiting and which flowers were still going strong in my garden in mid-November, and which flowers were likely to be used in supermarket bouquets should my hero choose to buy one for his love? Would they buy and eat different foods at this time of year? (eg Haven’t strawberries got expensive lately?!) It hadn’t crossed my mind that Christmas trees and decorations would already be up in the town hall and shops so early either, or that the London lights would already be lit if my characters were to venture down Oxford Street before going to the theatre. In America, of course, it’s Thanksgiving, and I hadn’t even heard of that other U.S. import Black Friday and the sales frenzy it created until I saw it on the TV right at the end of the month! And would I have remembered, if writing in mid-summer for instance, that in my story the clocks would have recently gone back, so it’s already dark soon after four?
I once started a novel (sadly long since abandoned in favour of other projects) that would take place over the course of exactly one year – the year its heroine turned fifty. The plan was to have twelve chapters, one set in each month of the year, and I would write it accordingly – writing the January chapter during January, February’s in February, etc. This gave me a self-imposed deadline so the whole thing would take a year to write, but it also gave me the huge advantage of not having to do much nitty-gritty research. I could just use the weather, the hours of light and darkness, what the sky and the garden looked like, a range of seasonal events and celebrations, and all the sights and sounds that were happening around me as I wrote. Easy!
Somewhere along the line, I slipped. May had arrived and I hadn’t written beyond my March chapter, and already I had forgotten the all-important minutiae of what April looked and felt like. So I panicked and put it away, telling myself I would pick it up again the following March and continue from exactly where I’d left off. Of course, a year later, I had moved on to other things and my mind was no longer wrapped up in what was happening to those characters, so I didn’t do it… but that’s down to my lack of discipline, not any failing in the plan itself. In fact, as plans go, it really wasn’t a bad one, was it?
Oh, look. It’s chilly outside, a robin is peeping in at my window, and there’s nothing but repeats on the TV. It must be December already.