Writers are always told that they need to write what they know, a frustrating piece of advice for someone who is writing fantasy or science fiction, or those who long to escape to somewhere other than where they are current living and wish to use their writing skills as a road map. One of the most important things in creating the setting of a book is understanding what seasons are like in that part of the country, especially if your book is going to cover the period of several months or longer. There is a huge advantage if you are writing about the area where you are living because you can simply look around you or rely on your memory. Each season is different depending on where you live. Even if you are creating a world from your imagination, think about the seasons. There is a time of sowing and a time of reaping, and if you think about your weather system, you can use the seasons as metaphors for what is happening on your pages.
When he created Westeros, the land where Game of Thrones is based, George R. R. Martin put a lot of thought into his landscape. His world has everything from deserts to frigid endless vistas of ice and snow. The harvest is plentiful in parts of the kingdom where it is warmer and crops grow more readily, such as Highgarden and Dorn. Winters and summers last for years, not months. Time is often described in terms such as a man in his thirties describing himself as living through nine summers or a three-year winter. There is no mention of fall or spring. The motto of House Stark, “Winter is coming,” is not only a phrase to describe the power of the Stark family and their ability to endure despite opposition and hardship, but it is a reality. During a long winter that lasts for years, those parts of the kingdom that have not stored up provisions will suffer and may not survive.
Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures series is set in South Carolina. In the South summers are humid, with lush greenery everywhere and the scent of flowers in the air. The third book, Beautiful Chaos, describes how the natural order has become unbalanced. The lovely green South becomes a wasteland where the lake dries up, trees are stripped of their leaves by a plague of locusts, and a section of the town of Gatlin is destroyed by what the locals believe is an earthquake or tornado, but is actually havoc caused by the wrath of supernatural creatures.
Thanks to the Internet, it is a lot easier to learn about a place that is distant from where you are located. You can google information on high and low temperatures, expected rainfall, crops that are commonly grown in the area, and view photos that have been posted online. But that leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to fleshing out the seasons for the setting in your novel.
It’s June and in southeast Kansas that means that the corn is growing between one and half to four feet high, depending on when it was planted. The fields are dotted with the DeKalb signs, identifying the crop as being a hybrid corn that has been genetically modified. The wheat crops are being harvested. As I drive home from teaching a night class at Labette Community College, I roam down country roads where there are still harvesters and trucks in the field, their lights on as the sky fades from pastel shades of sunset toward nightfall.
As I sit in my backyard while evening approaches, tiny bits of light blip on and off. The fireflies are out. My magnolia tree is blooming, but many of the early blooms have always withered, leaving behind pale brown husks that look like parchment paper. The scent of barbecue is frequently in the air. My herb garden is blooming, but my roses are not as thick as they usually are due to last year’s proliferation of bag worms, a disgusting parasite that I never knew existed until I moved to this part of the country. I had to cut away a lot of my roses and the limited number of blooms, and their small size, is the result of the damage from last year.
Californians think everyone is like they are – everyone thinks like they do, everyone acts like they do, and everyone wants to be like them. Based on my travels and years of living outside of California, I can assure you that the rest of the country is nothing like California, nor do they want to be, especially Texas. If I were still living in California’s San Joaquin Valley, I wouldn’t have any idea what a bag worm was. However, I knew what a rolling brown-out was. When the temperatures climbed to 108 and even higher, the power was likely to go out when the electrical grid got overloaded. I had no ideas what cicadas sounded like, and thanks to pesticides and smog, it was rare to hear a cricket. During California’s summers the heat simmers off the road, and I have heard of people who warmed their meals by putting them on the hood of their car. I can grip my car door handle without a lot of problems in Kansas, where 100 temperatures are usually limited to July, but in California I used my shirt to open my car door in June, feeling the heat sear through the fabric and still burn my fingers.
Another thing that people in other states don’t realize about California is that in the San Joaquin Valley green only lasts for about six weeks. People have to water their lawns to keep them green because the San Joaquin Valley is basically a desert. However, the water shortages have limited when they are allowed to water their lawns and plants. During six weeks in the spring a person can drive up to the mountains and see green grass and wildflowers blooming. After six weeks the flowers are gone and the grass returns to its usual dead dry beige. The leaves in the trees have a dusty greenish gray color. Yet in the summer, around near the end of July when the intense heat causes the sugar to drop into the grapes, the air is perfumed by the thick syrupy scent of grapes, sugar, and a light hint of dust. It is a scent like no other, and every July I find myself missing that unique aroma again.
California beaches are not warm, not even in summer. Although the sand may be hot — so hot that it burns your bare feet — the water is frequently cold. Contrast that with the beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where the water in the ocean is as lukewarm as bath water, even at nine o’clock at night. However, Mississippi is humid in summer and the air feels thick. Unlike California, everything is green, with kudzu growing over power poles and abandoned buildings.
One of the most distinguishing contrasts between the place where I came from and where I am now is the ditches. In Kansas and Oklahoma ditches are fairly shallow and run along the sides of the road. Crops are seldom watered through irrigation, although sometimes a field will have an irrigation system that consists of a long row of metal arches on wheels with sprinklers hanging down from them. In the San Joaquin valley most crops are watered by opening the pump and allowing the water to run into the rows in the vineyard or between the trees. The water is carried to the pump through huge concrete canals, often as much as twelve feet deep. These canals run through the cities out into the country. During the summer the water is often high, nearly reaching the top of the canals.
Unlike the ditches in Kansas and Oklahoma, where the greatest danger is driving off the road and requiring a tow truck to yank you out or flipping your car (you can often drive out on your own if you do get off the road), California canals are dangerous. Despite the signs posted in English, Spanish, and Hmong warning people to stay away from the canals, when the temperatures climb into the 100s children still try to swim in the canals, get caught by the swift current, and drown. The canals are often level with the road, and a car that drives off into one of them can’t escape. Drivers who lose control of their vehicles and end up in a California canal frequently drown.
The contrast between California’s San Joaquin Valley and southeast Kansas in winter are obvious. In Kansas we get blizzards, although some years there is hardly any snow at all. In the San Joaquin Valley snow fell about once every twenty years and was such a scant offering that it melted within hours. I have never lived in the upper plains states of North and South Dakota, or in Maine, where winter can last for six months and the snow is much deeper than we get in my part of Kansas. When I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, and Stephen King’s It, I realized how different winter was in those parts of the country. The concept of a winter where temperatures could get forty degrees below zero or lasted six months was beyond my experience. That is one of the values of reading about different places, to learn what life is like in that part of the country, that part of the world, or in a world that has been created in a writer’s imagination.
Look around you. What is unique about your part of the country? How does the landscape change each season? Make notes to yourself because you might be writing about a winter scene now, and your descriptions are filled with the noise of snow plows and what birds are out in your part of the country, but someday you will want to create a summer scene, and it is helpful to have notes to remind you of what it is really like then regardless of what season is actually outside. I’ve lived in four states. Each place I have ever lived had things that were unique to that part of the country during that particular season. It is those details of each season that will give a realistic sense of setting to your novel and give readers the concept of the passage of time in your part of the country, or your created world.
Photo of a Kansas wheat field was taken by Lane Pearman.