The red and gold thoughts of Autumn

For me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-four years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the music softened by distance and the soft evening breeze.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I’m thinking too of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there. Someone who shouldn’t have been there. The stillness—too much—and the silence that waits. Your house feels guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and just this moment stopped when you opened the door.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

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Blue Sky Thinking: bringing the weather into your writing

October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Like a lot of Brits, and many writers, I’m a bit obsessed with the weather. I use the weather quite a lot in my writing. I might have my characters attending a funeral on a beautiful sunny day that seems the opposite of mourning. I might have weddings take place in the rain, surely not an omen for future happiness?

We are often told in writing to draw on all of our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing. This creates an almost tangible, believable world for our readers to step into in their imaginations.

About midnight, while we still sat up, the storm came rattling over the Heights in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder, and either one or the other split a tree off at the corner of the building: a huge bough fell across the roof, and knocked down a portion of the east chimney-stack, sending a clatter of stones and soot into the kitchen-fire. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: it helps you to capture a background, a stage or canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives.  Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.

The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.
― Dr. SeussThe Cat in the Hat

Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, or a summer downpour leading to flooding.  In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River”, the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect.  I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot!!!! Later, five years of living in Queensland, Australia – even with its reputation for being damp – made me long for the grey skies and rain of my home. The state’s slogan is ‘Beautiful one day, perfect the next’.the sheer unrelenting sunniness of the place! It made me loath sunshine. One of the first people we met as new arrivals was a cab driver originally from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years.  He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. So weather can also be part and parcel of who we are, and affect our outlook on life, even when it’s warm and sunny.

It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.
― P.D. JamesA Taste for Death

I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its ridiculous melodrama.  So I haven’t used it.  But it’s so tempting! I love storms. during a storm, it’s as if anything could happen and normal rules don’t apply.  Likewise we usually think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
― T.S. EliotThe Waste Land

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in one book. It necessitated the use of a very large black umbrella. I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities, whether for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun insists on shining, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

An unexpected change in weather can bring about a useful shift, a change in plot direction or the mood of your characters, leading to a new scene or to actions you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t forget too, the weather can be variable. In summer, it can be gloomy, cold and wet. In Britain, you might be surprised to know, we do sometimes have glorious summers. Likewise, we sometimes we have mild, dry winters. It’s not always freezing cold and endlessly pouring with rain.

But don’t overdo it.  Use your descriptions of weather sparingly. You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. I’m sure Heathcliff and Cathy would have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.

But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.
― Jerome K. JeromeThree Men in a Boat

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