I wrote the following in my writing journal in late winter:
“A bird sang outside my window this morning. It was startling, but quite welcome, considering that we have just come out of two weeks of double-digit sub-zero temperatures and more snow than normal. It’s an unmistakable sign that spring is not too far off.”
Hopefully you’ve noticed that, as spring approaches, there’s a different aroma in the air. And in a sixth sense sort of way, there’s anticipation in the air, as well. The landscape is changing from snowy white to soggy brown and in places yellow-green as the snow mountains that decorate parking lots and roads begin to melt. Such details are the stuff of good fiction. They can inspire theme, setting, characters or a possible story situation.
So regardless of what season you are in, it’s important for you as a writer to make note of the details and nuances of that time of year. Observe your responses to weather or weather-related incidents/activities, as well as the reactions and behavior of people around you.
Why is this necessary? Well, if you don’t do this and you’re, say, in Tahiti trying to write about winter in Vermont (and I would be so jealous if you were!) I guarantee you’ll have difficulty making your readers shiver with cold and feel snowflakes kissing their cheeks unless you have previously recorded impressions from winter — that or you have an eidetic memory. If I had not written about that late winter experience and the context of the incident, I might not remember the impact that bird’s song had on me. And I would have missed a great slice of life to use in a short story or a novel.
The key is to catalog the input that your five senses (and even your sixth sense) take in, WHILE YOU’RE IN THE MOMENT.
So when in Tahiti, while taking a break from writing about building a snowman, making snow angels and skiing in Vermont, be sure to record the sights and sounds unique to where you are:
- the feel of tropical breezes caressing your skin
- the smell of the sea
- the pounding surf
- the shushing of palm branches
- the thud of coconuts falling
- the water lapping at the stilts of your hut hotel
- insects in your hut
- the tastes of unusual cuisine
- island traditions
- exotic-looking men and women
- unique entertainment
- local legends
And so that you can write about winter wherever you are, regardless of the season, make note of activities like this and many more:
- quintessential snow days where children are sledding and delighted to be out of school
- a glorious day for skiing
- digging out after a blizzard
- navigating country roads (or freeways) in treacherous, drifting snow
- the race to batten down the hatches when high winds are about to pummel your home
- the sound of the wind: does it whistle or moan?
- when you came inside, what did you smell? Hot chocolate to warm you? Chicken soup to soothe you? Do those smells take you back to another time and place?
Make similar lists for spring and summer, as well.
I recommend having a notepad always handy for those moments when you’re away from your writing area, like when you come inside from shoveling snow and you feel your cheeks begin to thaw and your eyeglasses fog up.
Don’t neglect everyday situations unique to the season. (e.g. – chopping wood, loading up the wood stove, shoveling the sidewalk, thawing snow/ice for barn or field animals to drink, etc.) If something happens only at a particular time of year, or as a direct result of a weather-related occurrence, WRITE IT DOWN!
What Journal Will You Use?
Now let’s talk about an actual “journal” to use for documenting your observations, reactions and feelings. What you decide on should fit with your personality and personal preferences.
- fancy leather journal
- simple cloth-bound or paper-back journal
- spiral notebook
- computer spreadsheet program
- word processing document file
The advantage to a digital journal is that it’s searchable and sortable. With a physical journal, however, you’ll need to set up your system of how to organize the information.
You might begin a naturalist’s journal, commenting on temperature, humidity, other weather phenomena, and your observations of flora and fauna.
You might comment on the antics of a pair of squirrels chasing one another from tree to tree, across the telephone cable, up the side of a house, scrambling across the roof, etc. Perhaps you discovered crocuses poking their heads through the snow in your garden.
A multi-subject notebook with tabs would lend itself well to this naturalist’s journal. Create a label for each season or for certain months. Some of these notebooks have pockets in the divider pages where you could store photos from each season, pressed leaves, bird feathers, etc.
Of course you need not be limited to observations about weather. Here are some suggestions:
- Capture the sights, sounds, smells, feel and tastes of any given day, so that you can recall what it was like.
- Take photos as a way to jog your memory.
- Record sounds if possible, such as the delighted squeals of children sledding, the crunch-crunch of people digging out their cars after snow and ice storms, the music of the calliope or merry-go-round at a carnival, the desperately pathetic cries of the mothers of calves who have been weaned and removed to another location.
- Pay attention to your reaction to aromas — good or bad: e.g.- skunk, cotton candy, chlorine at the pool, wood smoke, a backyard barbecue, etc.
What can you do with this seasonal information?
Here are 14 story starter ideas, given in the form of questions relating to the four seasons. Take your characters through a weather transition, possibly even using the seasons as a metaphor or to support your underlying theme. (Savvy non-fiction writers can draw inspiration here, too.)
– If Spring is delayed, is there a sudden crime wave because people have “cabin fever,” or is there something else going on, some other influence? Why is Spring delayed? Is it a natural phenomenon? This could be science fiction, mystery, thriller or horror.
– Premature Spring gives everyone a bad case of Spring Fever, including the teachers. What madcap situations can you envision?
– Spring sports, including injuries, might be a topic to explore with your characters, at least as a sub-plot — particularly if you write for teens.
– Heat wave sends tempers flaring in the city and crime takes a sudden frightening trend upward.
– Drought plagues an area for the third year in a row, leading to famine. What desperate measures do people take to secure water and food?
– Examine summer vacation from a unique perspective — the family pets, the air conditioner unit, the house when it’s unoccupied with the family traveling, etc.
– July 4th celebrations in the U.S.are a big deal in most communities. What might turn an ordinary event into a disaster? A miracle? A phenomenon?
– Follow the stages of fall as it progresses from crisp, bright days full of color, to soggy, cold nights, to leafless, bleak, almost-winter landscapes, using the evolution of the season to characterize your protagonist’s life.
– Fall is a time of more beginnings than the first of the year. School, college, a first job and fall sports are just a few. Create your own list and place your characters in that scenario.
– Unusually warm weather followed by extreme cold wreaks havoc on orchards and the commerce of a community. Who might be affected? What’s the long-term impact. Short term? Consider what characters have the most at stake in the situation. One should be a protagonist and another the antagonist.
– Limited snowfall for the past few years has nearly devastated the local ski industry. Now the snow is back. What changes take place at individual resorts? Did an owner recently sell out for a song to a competitor, only to regret his decision? Does he try to get back his business?
– An adopted child from a warm climate experiences snow for the first time. This might make a kid book story spark, or perhaps a scene in adult fiction.
– Holiday gatherings (are there ever too many family gathering stories with all their attendant interactions, conflicts and resolutions?
– What if you want to write about someone on the run in depths of Winter? What physical trials will s/he endure?
Whatever kind of journal you use, not only will it become a primary source of writing inspiration, but it should, with some time perspective, yield insight into your life. And that can only help your writing.
In addition to this technique for finding story ideas, I invite you to visit The Story Ideas Virtuoso blog, where you will find many different ways and places to find those often elusive story ideas at Lessons Hurricane Ike Taught Me
And I invite you to download, with my compliments, two excerpts from “Story Ideas – The Calendar of Our Lives” on using the seasons, weather, holidays and life events related to the calendar as story inspiration at: The Calendar of Our Lives Excerpts