Wintertime Blues: Seasonally Affected Settings?

Francesca considers her wintertime blues and wonders whether this affects the seasons she sets her stories in.

Winter sunset – pretty but too early in the day (Devon)

As a child I don’t think I paid much heed to the clock change of late October that caused daylight to disappear an hour earlier in the afternoons. To me at that time it meant apple bobbing at school, Guy Fawkes Night and ultimately, Christmas. The Yuletide period didn’t appear in the shops so early back then, certainly not in September, and definitely not August when the seasonal catalogues tend to plop through the letterbox these days.

Even now, the earliest I am willing to entertain Christmas is November. I’ve wondered recently whether I’ve picked this random date because the clocks change around the same time and dark afternoons become a reality. After this event I wait eagerly for the first of the Christmas lights to appear in front gardens and windows, as I drive along the road.

One of the summer settings I’ve used (Littlehampton)

Once the festive season is over and the decorations are packed away, I look each evening for signs of later sunsets. I dread the winter months, not because of the cold weather but because of the short days. Possibly this is the reason that five of the six contemporary novels I’ve written are set largely over spring and summer, as is the serial and many of my short stories. Could this be a manifestation of something I shall call Writer’s SAD?

The novel that does have a large winter element ends in July. Two others that begin in late winter likewise end in the summer. The historical I’m currently working on, set in a Welsh mining village in the Valleys in World War I, starts in a November. There is a real life reason for this, but this will also end in July because I want it to.

Maybe you prefer a winter setting (Amsterdam)

Maybe there is something symbolic about beginning a novel in winter and ending it in the summer, for me at least. They start at a ‘dark’ time, ending with sunshine and ‘light’. I could be reading too much into this and it’s probably simply that I like spring and summer so I contrive, albeit subconsciously, to set most of the action then.

Do any of you have a favoured season in which to set your novels, or is it just me?



Deadlines… or just dead lines?

Viv Hampshire talks about the effects on her writing of being put under pressure

There are times when we all have to write to order. If we want our work to be accepted for publication, it’s vital that we remain open not only to suggestions from editors and publishers, but to directions too! And one of the most important of these is the dreaded deadline. Whether it’s a magazine article, a seasonal short story that could miss its slot, or the submission of a completed novel manuscript, there will always be a date by which it HAS to be done… or we are in big trouble, quite likely missing our chance to see our work in print, and probably getting a bad reputation as a non-professional time waster along the way.

But having to finish writing by a certain date means added pressure. When it comes to a novel, it’s bad enough juggling plot, sub-plots, research, setting, characters and everything else that goes towards a great story. Now we have to finish it on time too! For me, this year, that meant getting my unfinished novel ready to send off for its critique under the RNA’s New Writers Scheme before the end of August deadline. Yes, they will take a partial, but having paid for a reader to look at a whole book, it’s a terrible waste to only send a few chapters. The last couple of months as the deadline approached saw me scribbling away at such a furious pace that I went way over the word count I had intended and actually wrote the last half of the book in about triple the time it had taken to write the first! 

It's not a hobby any more

It’s not a hobby any more

But what can happen when writing becomes a race against the clock instead of the pleasurable and leisurely pastime it used to be when it was just a hobby and not a way of life? The most obvious problem for me is a potential drop in quality. When I don’t have the time to carefully consider every word, rewrite every clanky paragraph, and rip up my synopsis umpteen times and start again, there is a real danger that what I write won’t be as good as it could have been, or as good as I would like it to be.

What if the dreaded deadlines do nothing more than push me into producing just that – dead lines, that don’t spring to life on the page and that nobody will want to read? But, how will I know if I don’t plough on and get to the end? When weighed up against not finishing at all, perhaps that’s a risk we should all be willing to take. Novels that are not quite perfect have the chance to be seen and edited and ultimately accepted. Novels languishing in drawers because they are never quite ready have no chance at all.  

Trying to achieve perfection comes at a price, and for me that price is definitely time. Therefore, I have made the decision to just do my best, get the words written, and stop worrying about every little comma or trying to become the next literary sensation. There are many less than perfect books out there – all accepted and published – so why shouldn’t mine be one of them? I can no longer afford to take three or four years playing around with a novel to tweak it into submission. Submission… there’s a pun there somewhere! So, until I acquire an agent who will no doubt be only too keen to push me on at a pace, it’s going to be self-imposed deadlines for me. A novel a year from now on, and I’m already three chapters into the next one!



A Touchy Subject

Francesca Capaldi Burgess talks about using the sense of touch in fiction.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.   
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!”                                                                                                    
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet                                                                                                                    

Touch isn’t always the easiest of the senses to deal with when writing fiction. If a point of view character is standing in a kitchen (as mine often seem to be), there’s a limit to the number of times their tea can be described as too hot, or the unit they’re leaning up against as hard. The latter is so obvious would you even mention it?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

The beach: soggy, grainy, jagged, ridged, slimy?

Three out of the four novels I’ve written are set by the sea. The seaside has a lot of scope for the sense of touch. Is the wind biting, balmy, refreshing? Is the sun blistering or gently warm? The sand can be dry and silky, wet and grainy, irritating the toes. Pebbles of various sizes cause different sensations on the feet. Is the water nippy, chilly or so bitterly cold it makes the character’s teeth chatter? (My beaches are always in the UK!)

If we’re not too careful, all this potential can lead to touch overload: ‘The wind cut through her, making her shiver as she stepped onto the beach. The solid cobbles she encountered first were hard underfoot. The sharp pebbles stabbed at her feet, sending little pinpricks of pain into her skin. When she reached the wet sand she dug her feet into its cloying stickiness. She flung herself into the icy water.’ You get the idea. Besides which, if I was writing this scene I would include the other senses too.

All the novels I’ve written so far have been romances, a genre which is enhanced with the sense of touch. Back in our kitchen scene, if our heroine is feeling the hard edge of the unit because she’s being jammed up against it in a passionate embrace by our hero, that might be acceptable. Skin, hair and lips all beg to be touched, whether they’re rough, warm, moist or silky. Then there are other parts of the anatomy for those who write more intimate scenes.

spidergram 2Whether we’re talking beaches, a couple making out, a child running through a wood or trudging to work on a rainy day, the problem is finding the words which really bring the scenes we’re working on to life. I deal with this in a number of ways. Often I’ll brainstorm the scene with a spider diagram, trying to put myself in that situation. There’ll be other senses apart from touch on there, but I get a lot of ideas that way. Sometimes I’ll use music or a sounds CD to help. Even better still is if I can be in that place, say the beach or a wood. If I’m really stuck to find a different way to describe something, there’s always my trusty Collins Thesaurus.

I’m off to Wales tomorrow, to the verdant undulations of Abergavenny. I shall lie on a hill in the sun and close my eyes to see what it feels like. All in the name of work, of course.


As I mentioned earlier, touch isn’t always the easiest sense to deal with, but it’s not the hardest either. Join us on the 21st May for Elaine Roberts’ blog post on ‘Smell’.