As I write these words, I’m sitting in Starbucks (because not only do I use clichés, I sometimes am a cliché), watching the snow fall outside. It’s a good night for it…I love the sight of the snow drifting down through the light of the streetlamps and the neon of the restaurants and the movie theater that surround this little plaza. Snow comes early here, and a blanket of cold and white is not unusual at Thanksgiving. It’s magical, at least until the roads turn to ice and the drifts pile up.
I’ve always loved winter as an idea. As I get older, I find that I’m not so fond of it when it’s up close and personal; but I still love the concept. There’s something mysterious about it, something that changes the mindset, that carries us to a different world. The location may be the same, but the place…ah, now the place is worlds apart. It’s a hushed, quiet, determined world. We become different people there, as well—huddled close, more aware of ourselves and each other, more thoughtful. Winter isn’t just a season, it’s an experience, and it changes us.
I believe that’s why I’ve always been drawn to winter fiction. It resonates with me, maybe because I grew up in the mountains, where winter is very much alive. Stories set in the winter seem to be few and far between. I think that’s because, unlike other seasons, the winter is a force to be dealt with. It changes your story as much as any character, so much so that it can even become a character. Yet, for me, those stories, rare though they are, have always made an impression.
I remember, at about the age of ten, reading for the first time Susan Cooper’s book, The Dark Is Rising. To this day, I consider it one of my favorite books, despite being written for children. It has other literary merits—it’s a complex story, with good and evil characters who are both defined in their roles and morally ambiguous, a feat which many adult novels can’t accomplish. It stuck with me for many reasons, but not least was the setting, in the English winter. I will never forget Will Stanton’s journey from Midwinter Day through the twelve days of Christmas, collecting the Six Signs of the Light, and doing battle with the Black Rider and the forces of the Dark.
The coldest season grew as I grew, passing through other works. Better known for its film adaptation, Stephen King’s famous horror novel, The Shining, scared me nearly to death as a teenager. It showed the dark side of winter, and what the cold and the silence and the isolation can do—with a little supernatural help, of course—to the human mind. Then there is Cormac McCarthy’s bleak and controversial The Road; although its winter was artificial, created by nuclear fallout, it stands as one of the starkest and most wrenching views of the cold that I have ever encountered. (And of course there’s that scene with the baby—if you’ve read it, you know the one, and if you haven’t, prepare to be scarred.)
I set my own first novel, The Last Shot, in the winter. I had some personal reasons for doing so; the story draws heavily on some of my own experiences, and some of those can only be placed in the winter. But that wasn’t my only motivation. I wanted to put my characters in a grim and desperate situation; and to add some emphasis to that point, I used the weather. When the story begins, in mid-December, the main character and his family are blissfully unaware of the trouble ahead; and the weather is chilly, but clear. As the story progresses, and the situation gets worse, the weather also gets colder, and the snow falls. It’s subtle—you wouldn’t notice the connection without pointing it out—but it adds weight to the increasingly tense and dangerous situation of the protagonists.
Or maybe I just like the cold. Who knows?
Either way, I wanted this novel set in winter. I think it works for this story. And I hope that, one day, it will resonate with others as those novels of the past resonated with me. That’s my goal, and the aim toward which I’m working. Perhaps it will even resonate with you, reader.
So, what do you think? Do you like the cold? Does your heart beat a little quicker when you see snowflakes falling? And if so, what books and stories—even movies—come to mind when you think of winter?