It’s hot this July in Virginia–very hot–and I’m drafting a new novel, set in Arkansas (the place where some of my relatives came from).
When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I often find that the weather outside influences the scene before me on the page. The season tends to move swiftly toward whatever season I’m currently in, especially if it’s winter or summer, times of extreme temperatures. My personal discomfort in freezing or burning finds its way into the conflict between characters–and seems to bring some relief as the thermostat sinks or soars.
Writing intense scenes of conflict, however, also brings a discomfort of its own. People I’ve grown to like, dislike, mistrust, or love (characters do become people and sometimes insist upon doing things I would prefer they didn’t!) embed themselves in my heart as they grow under my typing fingers, and when they get themselves into scrapes, or act in unwise, devious, or criminal ways, I must push myself away, escape the writing and return to my more controlled, safe daily environment of walking the dog and playing with the grandkids.
It’s summer in Virginia, and it’s summer in my work-in-progress. It’s too hot for toddlers and too hot for hounds.
But some kinds of heat can’t be escaped–mistakes in marriage (and divorce) that still feel like electricity in the nerves when remembered; misjudgments of moral character that burn; mismanagement or misappropriation of money that sends lives up in flames. Characters can–in fact, must–be put into situations like these, or others from which escape is not easy. It’s often impossible and the best outcome might turn out to be a compromise of opinions or ideals.
The weather can get hot indeed. Or very, very cold.
Sometimes, I feel obliged to change the scene or push the time frame forward into another season, to break my identification with my favorite characters. I have to relax away from the outdoors when I’m writing in the summer or the winter and put the book into a milder season for a while–or into the season of opposing extremes. This forces me, somehow, into a more rational frame of mind for plotting, removes me from the immediate so that I can see my characters from a greater distance for a while–and give them some room to grow.
But of course I must return at some point to those points of punishing emotional heat and cold. I go outside, suffer a while, and let my senses soak in the details, both mental and physical, of a season. What does it smell like? Look like? What does it do to the skin? To the eyes? To the mind’s eye?
I have to go to the places I write about and see them, feel them, for myself. Where is the sun in the sky at different times of the year? What do the flowers and trees look like? What do the farmers grow and what do drought, deluge, blizzard, or blight do to them?
It’s hot here in Rockbridge County, Virginia. But we all need to get out in it, experience it. My dog likes to relax under a ceiling fan on her favorite couch after an arduous walk in the summer.
My grandson likes to get in the pool. I return to the comfort and privacy of my study, where the weather in my mind can burn for a while longer. There’ll be time enough to cool down. Right around the corner, after all, is Fall.