Winter — characterized

What a wonderful time of year to consider all that winter can bring to a mystery/thriller. The season when days grow shorter, the dark seems darker, and death closer than life. It is time to take stock of the year past and plan for the year to come. Any farmer will tell you it is in the darkest months in which the seeds of change are set.

Winter can be tricky, especially if you write historical novels, so do your research. Here’s a hint: the weather has changed such that we can’t rely on our current relationship with winter when describing the season even ten years ago. The changes evident in the last twenty-five years are particularly striking. I did most of my growing up in a Michigan town where it started snowing in November and didn’t stop until the crocus popped up. It’s not like that anymore.

Back when I spent my days gathering climatological data that became the foundation of the American weather prediction model, an older meteorologist I knew would begin the morning weather briefings to a rapt gaggle of meteorologists with: Back in the year of the big snow. It was a lame weather joke, but he wasn’t kidding. North America used to get big, frigid, wind-driven snows. Like Buffalo, NY, just endured.

Clouds. Snow. Cold. Ice.

Hard, deep, cold, lasting snow. Whipping across the plains, stalling life. A time to read, time to plan, a time to learn, there’s a lot for writers to work with there. Snow that blots out all the familiar sights, so that going to the barn, or to school, or the outhouse is an adventure from which one might never return. And ice, the first melt creating a layer of ice sharp enough to cut skin, a second snow atop it, another melt, and so on until spring.  Then one wrong step and your character stovepipes in three-feet-deep, forcing them to either wait for the spring thaw to get their foot out, yell for help, or tear their pants and skin to break free. All under skies flat with purple-bellied nimbostratus, spitting tough little pelts at you, not just the lofty, fluffy snowflakes that come with romance.

The joyfulness of winter fun: Skates. Sleds. Icicles. Hockey.

My grandparents met ice skating on the Fox River in Illinois. They were from opposite sides of the river and met gliding down the middle. After WWI, the same couple was married across the county line by a justice of the peace in the headlights of my grandfather’s car. Romance.

The point is they met on the ice, ice skating, holding hands and skating side by side.

“She threw open the window sash, a blast of frigid air accompanied by giggles and guffaws rushed in to greet her. From the sounds of laughter and excited voices, ice skaters had discovered the frozen pond.” From One Horse Too Many, a coming Wanee Mystery

There was a time when every kid who grew up in snow country had a favorite sledding hill with a stream at the bottom, all dubbed Devil something, where they tested their metal. Towns had ponds, rivers, even streets that froze, where the boys met on ice and battled it out with sticks.

And icicles really were so big they could put your eye out. Watching an icicle grow could take up the better part of early evening. Wonderful, drippy, prismatic, and deadly.

Dark. Short Days.  Death.

It is a fact that we are all statistically more likely to die in winter. It is the shortness of the days, the incessant dark, and the sense that more is ending than beginning. Things just naturally slow down.

It also is true most murders occur in summer — heat, irritability – just watch the old movie Body Heat, who wouldn’t kill?

Still, as with all weather, at all times of year, writers who don’t look to the skies are missing an opportunity. It is far too easy to go for the steam heat over the slow freeze. Everyone understands sunny and bright, rainy and threatening, but the cold, darkness, isolation, joy, and fragile passing beauty of life and death under winter skies – oh my!

Winter kills. As a character.

“The day was sullen, low dark-bellied clouds bumped together like the bottom of apple pandowdy, fat and stationary they continued to dump snow.”  From One Horse Too Many, a coming Wanee Mystery.

2 thoughts on “Winter — characterized

  1. You are absolutely right about how the climate has changed, and should be reflected in our fiction. As a child in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, every child I knew had a pair of skates and knew how to skate. We had evening skating parties under house lights or car lights. Every town had a few ponds that froze, and we knew how to test for safety. Those days are gone in Southern New England. And that would be part of a good story.


  2. I always love to read your slant on writing and what propels you, personally, to write the wonderful stuff you write. Great blog.


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