Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Snow and Trees

In addition to my NaNoNovel, I'm working on the third Kyndred book, and one major obstacle I have with this one is the setting for one of the early chapters of the novel: snow and trees, trees and snow. There are mountains (background) a road (lost early on) and one cargo truck (ditto) but that's about it. During the length of one chapter I have to move my characters through a setting in which there are no other people, vehicles, houses, towns or any sign of civilization.

This is the sort of place I think of as a non-setting setting, and it's one of the toughest to write because it seems like you have so little to work with. It's always tempting to start adding in things into this bleak landscape to remind the reader that the characters are still on this planet: critters (wild), caves (abandoned) and cabins (ditto) would be my first choices. But a magical distraction or solution to their immediate problem doesn't serve this story, so I have to work with what I have: snow and trees.

Fortunately I've visited several remote areas during winter, and I know I have a bit more than snow and trees to work with. There is the sky, various forms of natural light, water (streams, lakes, ponds) rock formations, animal tracks, and remnants of earlier passages (some hikers don't seem to know what trash cans are.)

Cold is always touted to mute the senses, and it does restrict my sense of smell, but I've found it also sharpens my hearing. You'd think a setting of snow and trees would be pretty silent, and it can be, but there's also the wind, snow falling, birds, echoes, etc. If you're in thaw weather, you hear water dripping, rushing, shifting debris and cracking as solid surfaces break up; if you're in a freeze you hear branches snapping, drifts collapsing and this odd crunchy sound ice-covered objects make when they rub together. In such places you also tend to regularly hear your own breathing and (occasionally) your heartbeat.

I find visuals help, too. I regularly go over and search Landscapes 2.0 for inspirational pics using keywords like mountains, snow and winter. Often photographers find things in otherwise deserted landscapes that are beautiful, poignant and even astonishing.

Once I put together all my visuals, notes and ideas, I found I had quite a bit more to work with than just snow and trees. But I'll admit, I'm glad it's only for one chapter. As much as I like snow and trees, I like great big fireplaces, warm snuggly quilts and huge steaming mugs of hot chocolate even better. So will my characters.

Related links:

How Setting Influences Story by J.C. Hewitt.

Fun with Setting by PBW.

Image credit: © Luminis | Dreamstime.com


  1. Oh! Thanks so much for sharing the link to Landscapes 2.0! I have been needing a good place to search for images of settings as inspiration. This hit the spot!

  2. I always start seeing ghosts, shadows, things that aren't there in lots of snow. Moving lights and darks.

    Tuesday's Tales in Two Hundred - Going In Circles

  3. What a great picture. When I first started, I didn't 'get' the visual aids. I do now!

    Congrats on your NaNo count too :) I'm so far behind being sick all month, I'm considering just giving up *sigh*

  4. Ahhh... Snow and trees... a great environment for a sporting game of hide-n-seek before the snowball fight starts and ends in a private snowdrift. So much can be learned about a character while ice and snow sneaks down the back of the neck. ;-)

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I have had similar moments in my writing when I was thinking, "Not much to work with here." And here you come along and help me dig a little deeper and fish out those tiny noticed, unnoticed things that make all the difference in the world.

  6. I don’t think photos are enough.

    Another source of ideas you might explore could be blogs by currently active cross country skiers, looking for tidbits of sound, smell and action. I used to cross country ski a couple times a week all winter, taking care of the family’s river bottom land, and my vision of trees and snow is anything but empty or still.

    One example: I had just come down a steep embankment (note – steep and cross country skis are a bad combination) and come to a stop the way I usually did on that path – by falling over. There has been a heavy fog that morning, and a thin sheen of ice covered everything and so I glided to a stop a bit farther on than usual and landed in a small, comfortable looking juniper bush.

    Now, in the winter bushes covered by snow make an excellent igloo-like shelter for the small birds that winter over. They find a good one and gather inside. Each tiny body adds a tiny bit more heat to the shelter. As the heat builds up more birds are attracted. By the dawn after a deep winter night those bird bushes can get quite full and toasty warm.

    So, when I fell a gust of warmth rippled the air along with the intense fragrance of juniper and bird droppings. I was jostled around as an explosion about a thousand nuthatches or sparrows or god knows what, all peeping ferociously, were all trying to get out from under me at once.

    A mere photograph could never do justice to that memory.


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