Tonight’s festive guest blog post is brought to you by novelist, short story author and tutor Lorna Fergusson.
Festivities And Frost
‘Christmas, children, is not a date. It is a state of mind.’ (Mary Ellen Chase). By the time you read this post, you may well be vowing never to eat turkey again; the children will have broken at least one toy; you’ll be wondering just how many repeats of old shows the BBC can get away with and you’ll be uneasily aware that you need to get on with those accounts for the tax man by the end of January…
At the start of this month I ran a Fictionfire Focus Workshop on ‘Festivities and Frost’, where we examined how writers make use of winter scenes and festive scenes in their fiction, so in this post I want to share what we discovered about writing about Christmas. We started by listing adjectives for Christmas and our feelings about it – and those pretty soon demonstrated a certain ambivalence of attitude!
Everybody feels the pressure of the Christmas ideal. We love the thought that it’s a cosy traditional time, imbued with rituals and bonhomie, full of unquestioning beliefs and a sense of safety. This is why, if you ask anyone to name a Christmas story, they’ll immediately come up with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We think of rich food, games, carols, candles, parcels, Christmas trees, nativity plays, family gatherings – the whole ‘God bless us, every one’ package of it. If you want to write a story which evokes the atmosphere of Christmas you absolutely must go into sensory overdrive, so that your readers can smell the spices, hear the flute-like voices, feel the crunch of snow underfoot and be warmed by the crackling logs on the fire (central heating not so festive!) …
In the workshop we considered T. H. White’s marvellous description of a medieval Christmas in The Sword in the Stone: in it he evokes a snowy castle on which snow lies ‘like extremely thick icing on a very good cake’, where there are skaters ‘on the moat, which roared all day with the gliding steel, while hot chestnuts and spiced mead were served on the bank to all and sundry’ and where out in the cold, comic-book wolves wander about ‘slavering in an appropriate manner, or sometimes peeping in with their blood-red eyes’. White is deliberately tongue-in-cheek, creating a fantasy of Christmas as we would most like to think of it. At the end of the chapter the Castle of the Forest Sauvage sleeps ‘peacefully and lightless, in the strange silence of the holy snow.’
This brings us to the second aspect of Christmas a writer can explore: its spiritual and moral force. You can choose to highlight the magical atmosphere and the opportunities the season presents for your characters to grow and change. You can write stories to warm the cockles of your readers’ hearts, where characters come together, rediscover each other and are reconciled to one another. The bonds of family and friendship can be strengthened and renewed, or characters can be tested and pass those tests, because Christmas is a time of transformation where the meaning of life is heightened. Think of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which opens with a test: the girls have to give up their Christmas to help others – their individual attitudes to the idea of sacrifice help to show us the differences in their characters. Or George Eliot’s Silas Marner, where a tiny lost child wanders into the house of a lonely embittered man – a child who will bring him love and redemption. Or the Grinch, in the story by Doctor Suess, whose shrivelled heart grows and blooms once he realises Christmas isn’t delivered from a shop. The central paradox of Christmas is that a life-affirming mystery takes place in the depths of winter. This provides huge potential for drama, emotion and spiritual significance in your writing.
Finally, there’s the negative side of Christmas, which you can use to counterbalance all that cheery bonhomie! You can focus on the practical problems of travelling to family reunions your character doesn’t even want to attend, or the split loyalties of broken families. You could write about the tacky commercial excess of it all: the pressure to conform to the traditional image, the need to buy presents nobody actually wants, the envy, the racking-up of debts. You could describe the loneliness of those excluded such as the recently-bereaved or the down-and-outs: those people looking in on the Christmas and New Year scene but shut out from it like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl.
Christmas offers the writer a great range of storylines which all pack an emotional punch. It gives you the chance to use evocative detail and pull at your readers’ heartstrings. It’s at the turning point of the year and triggers memory and anticipation. Ultimately, it’s hard to resist the positivity and the schmaltz, so whether you’re a ‘God bless us, everyone!’ type or your default state is ‘Bah, humbug!’, go on – have a wallow!
I will. Thank you, Lorna!
Lorna Fergusson is a novelist and award-winning short story writer who has taught creative writing for Oxford University and the University of Winchester. She runs a literary consultancy, Fictionfire, offering workshops, day courses, editing, critiquing and mentoring to writers. Her novel, The Chase, first published by Bloomsbury, will soon be re-released on Kindle and she is currently writing a historical novel. She blogs about books and the writing life at http://literascribe.blogspot.com and her website is at www.fictionfire.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter at @LornaFergusson and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/lorna.fergusson. Contact her at email@example.com.
And a little more about her book ‘The Chase’…
Le Sanglier: a house buried in the woods in the heart of the Dordogne, a region steeped in dark history.
Gerald Feldwick buys Le Sanglier as a refuge. He tells his wife Netty that in France they can start afresh – they can escape the unbearable pain of an event which is fracturing their marriage. He tells her they can put the past behind them.
Netty is not so sure.
Netty is right.
‘This is a haunting book, skilfully written and tantalisingly unravelled. Lorna Fergusson weaves a vivid but dark tale set in the beautiful Dordogne, where past and present fuse in a page-turning mystery.’ Alison Weir, novelist and historian
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