Writing Settings out of Sequence

Writing energy, happy writerI love starting a new book

It is a lovely feeling, a clean sheet  with so many possibilities. New story, new characters, new settings. It’s the time I can let myself dream as I begin weaving the story.

That is the point I am at now.

I have an idea for the book and the settings will be Regency London and mainly (probably) at my hero’s country house. And it is summer.

I first began thinking about this idea in September, when my current work in progress was coming to an end. Now I wonder if I chose a summer setting because the seasons were changing? Maybe I was hoping to hang on to those hot days and balmy summer nights. But I shall be writing the story throughout the winter: bare landscapes, long nights, icy days.

 It shouldn’t be a problem, I am a writer, aren’t I?

I am used to Making Stuff Up. It’s what I do. However, sometimes it can be difficult to fire up the imagination and write settings of a hot summer’s day when I have a rug wrapped around my knees and I am wearing fingerless mittens to type!

(Yes, dear reader, I have been known to wear these little beauties on occasion. They were a thoughtful present from a fellow writer!)

 

 

So, how do you conjure up a different season?

If you are a reader, you can curl up with a good book indoors, or stretch out in the sun and be transported to a different world, a different season. I  have friends who like to read Christmas books on the beach! Nothing wrong with that.

But what if you are the writer, trying to create that special time and place? Maybe you start writing your book in July, with the sun shining and a cool drink at your side. So far so good. But chances are you will still be writing those summer settings as the months slide by. At the present time, jetting off to the sun to finish your book just isn’t an option.

I might be sweltering in the garden yet having to think about tinsel and glitter, mulled wine and carol singers.

Sometimes, when the first daffodils are bursting into life I am conjuring pavements thick with crisp autumn leaves and the smell of a log fire.

Authors are not alone in this, of course. Magazine editors and advertising copywriters do it all the time, working months ahead. Just think of all adverts for cruises and summer holidays that appear before we have even digested the turkey.

Then there are the practical details

I keep a note of sunrise and sunset times for whatever location I am using. It is rarely necessary for me to be accurate to the minute, but it is good to know that in the height of and English summer candles might not be required until around 9 p.m., but it can be dark by around 4 p.m. in December.

 

Clothes, too. I look out of the window at snow and want to wrap my heroine in a fur-lined cloak. Until I remember that she is attending Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in July.

 

 

 

The book I have just finished is set in the Highlands around midsummer. Now that poses problems of its own. It never gets properly dark for a few weeks; this photo was taken in May this year, at around 10 p.m. There are shadows, yes,  but one can still see to move around.

So what do I do?

What can I do when a particular scene requires the cover of complete darkness in mid June?  Cloud cover is useful, or a shuttered room. Conversely, in the depths of winter, daylight is reduced to just a few hours and bad weather can make nights as black as pitch. 

Pictures are a great way to remind oneself of a particular time: atmospheric photos and paintings or even family snaps can conjure up memories and experiences.  Below is a snowy scene of Porlock, Devon, that inspired one of my own Christmas books!

journeys end – Maurice Bishop

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thing photos don’t show is just how cold a house can be.  I remember listening to an old lady reminisce about her days living in a large country house in the first half of the 20th century. There were fires in the major rooms but not everywhere. She said one had to wrap up warmly just to get from the bedroom to the dining room. No wonder those Regency ladies loved their shawls!

Alexander Molinari, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. 1800

And I am sure many of us of a certain age can still remember waking up to find ice on the INSIDE of the bedroom windows after a particularly cold night!

Then there is food. Don’t get me started on local foods that are available at certain seasons. That, I think, is the subject for a whole new discussion!

So, sticking with books…

If you are a writer, do you find it easy to write settings out of season?

And readers, what books conjure up a particular season for you? For example,  Winter’s Children by Leah Fleming does it for me, evoking a bleak north of England winter: it is chill, claustophobic, slightly sinister.

Maybe you could tell me which books carry you away…goodness knows we need it !

Sarah

Forbidden to the Highland Laird
Pub. December 2020

10 thoughts on “Writing Settings out of Sequence

  1. Liz Fielding

    Unless it’s specifically a Christmas story, I seem to automatically set my books in spring or summer and I have to take care to ensure that I get my wild flowers right. Dandelions, Rose Bay Willow Herb, the hedgerow froth of cow parsley. It’s not an exact science. The blackthorn was very early this year.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      Liz, just those few flower names conjure up English spring/summer to me! There are so many things to get right in creating a setting, I seem to learn something new with every book.

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    I find that in any case I am transporting myself in my head to a different world in time. So envisaging the season is a part of that mental immersion. That said, I do tend to forget while writing first draft and have to ensure I insert necessary weather wise thoughts, clothes and details when revising.

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      I have to double check my details in the second draft, too, Elizabeth. The book I have just finished writing changed from early spring to summer when I realised the timings didn’t fit with the historical facts and I had to go through and make sure I included the very short summer nights (in fact, there are weeks up here when it never gets truly dark and we have just “twilight”

      Reply
  3. lesley2cats

    The light at time of year struck a chord with me, as I’ve just read a book where it was getting dark in mid-May at 4.30. And son has just been delving into history to find out exactly what the weather was like in Spring, 1648 in the North of England. And as for flowers…

    Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      I must admit it is quite fun, playing with time, light, landscapes, flowers, etc., isn’t it, Lesley? As a reader I can be transported to a different time, place or season quite easily by a few well placed words.

      Reply
    1. Sarah Post author

      I am glad I am not alone in having to work at it, sometimes, Louise! Was it an English Christmas story? I can imagine sailing down an Asian river would have very different climate, sights, sounds and smells to distract you!

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I sympathize, Sarah. This is where you need to keep a Weather Diary – for an entire year. You need to record what’s going on weather-wise, the temperature, what birds are doing: flying about with twigs in their beaks? Has the dawn chorus started, What do their chicks look like? What are the trees doing? When do you start wearing gloves? .And make sure that you record the weather daily.

    It sounds an awful fuss BUT it will mean that, if you are writing a winter scene on a hot July day, then you have somewhere you can check out how winter/summer feels and what your heroine would be doing – getting her warmest muff out or shedding a petticoat or two!

    A large calendar with a good-sized box for each day helps – the hours of daylight, the temperature, the weather. I find that knowing what flowers are out when, and what’s going on with the wildlife, or in the town really helpful. It may end up being only half a line in the book but you’ll have captured the feel of your chosen place and time.

    Reply
  5. Sarah Post author

    Wise words, Elizabeth, thank you! I already do the diary – sort of – and also keep lots of photos by season, date etc. Many, many years ago I kept a page from an old diary with sunrise/sunset times (for London & Glasgow, because there is quite a difference!) and it is still pinnned to my wall!

    Reply

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