It's Ask-A-Wench on the blog again, and this time we Wenches asked ourselves a question – in honor of December and the advent of winter, and the appearance of some unexpected snow here and there — we got to chatting about winter, winter stories and writing winter settings:
Have you ever written a winter setting, and what do you find enjoyable and/or challenging about that? If you haven't, why not – and have you read a winter-set book that you particularly enjoyed?
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening,
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight,
We're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland . . .
– Richard Smith, lyricist, “Winter Wonderland”
I’ve lived in the northeast and midwest most of my life, and I have never, ever learned to appreciate the cold. If it snows, I hide inside by the fireplace. I love watching snow fall, and love the beauty of ice coating the trees, but do not ask me to go out in it. I’ve spent too many cold winter nights huddling around a kerosene heater with a flashlight for reading to appreciate the inevitable lack of electricity. And the last time we were caught in a blizzard, we spent eight hours off the side of an interstate waiting for help. Nope, not doing that anymore.
That said, the experience has certainly made me aware of the discomforts our historical heroines suffer in winter! I’ve written quite a few winter novellas (two of which are currently in Mischief and Mistletoe and Christmas Roses) and many of my historicals torment my characters with cold (the Magic Man reissue does snow and Scotland). I torture my characters with weather!
Hope everyone stays safe and warm this winter!
Mary Jo Putney
Weather is a useful tool in the author's workbox, and England has lots of weather to work with. I often find myself setting stories in spring because the blossoming flowers and fields parallel the growth of the romantic relationship. Winter is more of a niche setting because it can be very limiting, particularly because of Regency roads and transportation. (Besides, I grew up in a cold, drafty northern farmhouse. I don't need to write about such places!)
But winter can also be very romantic, allowing two people to grow closer as they are cut off from the rest of the world. In my first historical, Dearly Beloved, the characters have a passionate lovemaking session in the snow. (Luckily Diana's mantle was long and very warm. <G>)
Since British weather is often on the wet and foggy side, my first Christmas novella ever, "Sunshine for Christmas," starts with the hero, depressed by the gloom, as he flees England for sunnier climes. Naples starts out with damp and rain also, until Lord Randolph meet a charming governess…
Not surprisingly, my other Christmas novellas often have snow. And ice. And a need to cuddle together for warmth. In "The Christmas Tart," the protagonists' carriage slides off the road, marooning them with a sweet little old lady for the night. In "The Best Husband Money Can Buy," the unhappy heroine falls asleep in the snow and has to be warmed up by her new husband.
And in "The Christmas Cuckoo," the hero and heroine first have a weather related carriage accident (yes, they were common!) and later peacefully gather greens for the holiday while talking at cross-purposes.
I suppose that I keep writing Christmas stories because they allow for over-the-top sentimentality, and the icy weather emphasizes the warmth of family and friends indoors by the fire. Happy holidays!
My favourite writing about winter is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. I read the poem as a child and was enchanted by it. Although I know Frost was an American poet, for me his writing captures exactly how I think a British winter should be: the snow falling softly through the trees as the light fades, the crisp coldness of the air. So often our winters are mild and damp and very different from the pictures on the Christmas cards. I love the cold freshness of a proper winter day and I read the Robert Frost poem and imagine standing in my favourite woods (Ashdown, of course!) while the snow blankets the world in white.
I like winter, I really do! But winter doesn’t like me. Even as a kid, I was really susceptible to the cold. So although I loved skiing and sledding, I was always having to skulk back inside to thaw my frozen hands and feet.
Aside from several Christmas short stories, I’ve never written a book set in winter—maybe it’s that lingering sympathy for how miserable it is to feel frozen. I just don’t seem to have the heart to subject my heroine to the discomforts of snow and ice. (I could, of course, set the inside the cozy confines of a manor house, complete with blazing fires and mulled wine . . . ah, a house party, snowbound with all sorts of interesting people to pair off.
Hmmm, now there’s an idea . . .)
I was more or less raised on English story books, and I adored winter stories because frozen lakes and snow-covered landscapes were to me, pure fantasy — things I'd only read about. We do get snow in Australia in winter, but usually you have to travel to the mountains to get to it. I didn't see real snow until I was eight and we went to live in Scotland for a year.
But in Australia, Christmas comes in summer, so for me, winter stories with ice and snow were all part of the fantasy of having "a proper Christmas." I wanted to skim across the ice like Hans Brinker, and make snowmen and throw snowballs, and tramp across the fields to collect the Christmas tree and cut holly and ivy — all the things I'd read about in books. We arrived in Scotland in February, so I missed my white Christmas, and the next Christmas we spent in London, where it was grey and drizzly. So I'm yet to experience a white Christmas, but it doesn't stop me from writing winter-set stories. I loved writing The Mistletoe Bride, my story in the Mischief and Mistletoe wenchly anthology, and my next book is called The Winter Bride.
By preference, I would probably avoid winter stories, because I don't like the cold, especially if it comes with ice underfoot and snow on the streets. However, I do like writing Christmas stories, so I can't avoid it. I don't think, however, that I've ever written one that involves ice or any more snow than makes a decorative dusting! But they do involve cold. I grew up without central heating, so my memories of Christmastime are wrapped up with cold, and remember England, especially the north, has a damp cold. It's not crisp and fresh; it eats into the bones. There was a reason that the even the rich and great used small rooms in the winter, and preferred to spend winter in Town rather than in their chilly stately homes. In Winter Fire, even the Marquess of Rothgar wouldn't have been able to keep Rothgar Abbey warm enough for Genova to lounge around half naked! I'm showing the step-back, so you can fully appreciate the absurdity.
“…that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea…”
– Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales
I love snow and winter, having grown up in Upstate New York, where winter days in my childhood were not only beautiful but seemed magical—and a wonderland playground (sledding, snowballs, snowforts, snow angels, skating, skiing; and then inside, cozy sweaters and slippers, days off school – and hot cocoa!). Now, I live in the DC suburbs, where snow is…well, a whole different experience. Yet for me it will always have a certain magic.
So, being a dyed-in-the-wool fan of winter and snow, I’ve written lots of winter settings and winter scenes and situations in my books. Scotland lends itself to winter stories, particularly in certain regions, and cold and snowy weather naturally create interesting challenges for a hero and heroine just getting to know one another—particularly when there’s adventure as well as romance in the mix. I’ve stranded couples in blizzards in cottages and castles where they had to find ways to stay warm (oh and there are ways!), I’ve sent them traveling through snow drifts on urgent missions, and I’ve sent them outside on ice-thick ponds to play the old sport of curling, which originated in Scotland.
In “The Snow Rose,” my novella set in 16th century Scotland, re-released in the anthology Christmas Roses, the heroine and hero are stranded in a Highland cottage during a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. The roof collapses, a cow wanders in from the cold, and Kenneth Fraser and Catriona MacDonald simply must find some way to not only get along under adverse conditions—but keep toasty warm, which requires a truce of sorts. In “A Wilder Wench,” my story in the Wench Christmas collection, Mischief and Mistletoe, the story is set during a snowstorm as the heroine holds up a coach (she has a good reason!), and the hero tackles her to bring her in from the cold—just the two of them—to discover her purpose.
Snow and cold offer all sorts of great opportunities in romance – and a snowy setting can be lovely, enchanting and very romantic. Some of my favorite books over the years have had winter settings, such as Mrs. Mike and Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. And who could forget the ice palace in Dr. Zhivago – or the enchanted winter scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or "The Snow Queen”?
Do you enjoy reading winter settings in fiction (at any season of the year)? What do you love – or not love – about winter-set novels? Do you have some favorites? We'd love to know your thoughts!