This is the first of a series of advice pieces I want to do this year. It will (obviously) consist of four articles (actually it might contain a fifth if I choose to do a Christmas special – Christmas is so different from the rest of winter), one for each season, The reason I am choosing to do this is that sometimes I get frustrated when reading a book and wondering what time of year it is supposed to be set. I became conscious of it reading The Passage last year and feeling that the novel had a very autumnal atmosphere to it. Though that was probably more to do with the theme and the landscape suffering a slow death than anything else, it got me thinking about how we define the seasons and portray them in our prose.
I love the feeling of new life that goes with it. It is probably the only time of year that I feel compelled to leap out of bed… not even in the summer when everything is at its height because the new life has finally arrived. I also love the cold air reminding you that winter isn’t quite gone yet. It is – in many ways – a rather erratic and wild season. When the weather is good it has great atmosphere; when the weather isn’t so good it can really wake you up.
Have you noticed the atmosphere of spring? The electricity in the air? The disappearing cold-ness? the buzzing of insects, the smells, the optimistic birdsong? Now ask yourself… has that ever been vividly expressed in any fiction narrative? No, I can’t think of any examples personally. So how do we write what spring feels like?
For me, there is a kind of electricity in the air on a spring day. The sun glows but in the shade it can be quite chilly and when the wind picks up you’d be quickly reaching for a thin jumper. Everything feels alive, awake, confident. Use words to describe this atmosphere: vibrant, energetic, electric, exuberant.
Spring is a veritable goldmine of odours. If you have an area of scrubland near you visit it and really experience the smells (obviously I live in England, if you live somewhere else, visit an area that typifies your countryside). For best results try somewhere away from major roads. Spring is alive with the smell of blossom. In England, I’m always surprised to note that gorse blossom usually smells of coconut (it does, try it!). The smells that really define the season are: fresh-cut grass, blossom, rain (which has a unique freshness at this time of year and the smell of the post-rain dampness which is also unique), the earth smells loamy
The most noticeable is the sun. In spring it has an energetic glow, finally shedding its annoying stabbing of winter (anybody actually like the winter sun?). It glows a golden yellow with renewed passion. The sky is a brilliant blue, almost electric and the clouds are big and puffy, they billow and move across the sky quite quickly. Insects are everywhere, particularly bees and there is a vigour that they tend to lack in the summer and autumn. And don’t forget the maybugs and butterflies.
Undoubtedly the most obvious sound of the season is birdsong. It is joyous and optimistic and it is quite easy to imagine that they are all fighting to outdo each other and sing the loudest to attract a mate. Other sounds include the buzzing of bees (to a lesser extent, wasps), the never-ending sound of lawnmowers, of children playing outside. Think of a light wind whistles through tall grasses and try to describe the sensations.
By that I mean think about how your (or your character’s) diet might be different in the spring that the summer or winter. I tend to drink more white wine (red wine I prefer in autumn and winter), golden beers (stuff with less body and lighter flavour – I never want ale or stout in spring or summer), tea (more refreshing than coffee) and fruit juices in the spring. I tend to want more salads and fish. Though in writing narrative, what your characters are eating or drinking might be less important in the portrayal of the season, if you are writing a period piece you will need a greater attention to seasonal availability of food types.
How does the ground feel? It will be soft, the soil will give way beneath your feet; it might spring back but it won’t suck you down in the way that it might in winter. A warm sun on the face might be accompanied by a chilly breeze so bare arms might experience goosebumps. Your skin will also tingle with the sunshine whether you wear suncream or not. The clothes you wear will also feel different. You’re not likely to wear woolly jumpers or jeans and more likely to wear thin cardigans, loose-fitting cotton trousers, skirts if you are female. All of these will feel different. Again, this may be less important depending on what type of fiction you are writing.
So over to you, what signifies spring to you? How do you identify the arrival of the season?