…In the Dead of Winter

Two of my sons came home for a visit the weekend after my birthday. One carried a florist’s bouquet. As I pulled back the delicate tissue paper and lavender satin Flowersribbon, I seemed to hear Patricia Neal’s smoky voice. “Flowers,” she whispered. “In the dead of winter!”

Amid smiles, hugs, and centering the fragrant blooms on our coffee table, Neal’s words lingered in my thoughts.  The movie was The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, a pilot for the old television show, The Waltons.  You remember — the Great Depression, a large family.  John-Boy.  When Olivia Walton (Neal’s character) receives the flowers, her sense of awe is tangible.  “Flowers,” she says.  “In the dead of winter.”

With those few words we understand Olivia.  Her rural poverty.  Her warmth and love of beauty.  Her wonder at the miracle of flowers growing in winter.   The words anchor her in a different time and place, a time when folks couldn’t easily pick-up fresh floral bouquets year-round.

Other than a few blogs and articles, mostly I write historical fiction.   Reading it has taught me the need to ground my heroine in the time she lives.  I must make her era come alive through her thoughts, deeds, and dialogue.  What does she find wondrous?   What might she fear?   What does she believe?  How does all of that influence her words and actions?

It takes a light hand to do this.  No long rambling diatribes.  Just something simple.  Something like “Flowers. In the dead of winter.”

→If you write historical fiction, or any fiction set outside your own norm, what have you found helpful when creating your characters?  How do you sculpt them to make them appropriate for the time or place in which they live?

4 thoughts on “…In the Dead of Winter

  1. Loved the post and the quote. Patricia Neal had one of those voices that you can never forget once you’ve heard it. Like Lauren Bacall or Cary Grant. Your adjective, smoky, is perfect. You must be a writer!

    Being able to ground yourself in the time period is so important. It takes time to do it simply because simple demands great amounts of knowledge that we must never dump on your readers.

    I suspect that’s why I’ve only written one historical and it’s way too long. I love history and all the parts of it. For me the history became the story. Not good for fiction. Great for non-fiction.

    At least that’s my humble reason for not treading the historical waters any longer.

  2. That short piece of dialogue is a great example. I can’t say how I sculpt my character, because every character is different. And I keep learning with every book too.

  3. Lori, what an interesting observation! Your phrase “the natural order of seasons and growth” is great! It has been almost forgotten, perhaps as we’ve changed from a mainly agricultural society to one that is mostly urban and mechanized. We can bring it back in our stories.

    Mary Jo, you’re right about Patricia Neal’s voice. I hear her most in the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. Ok, so I’m a sci-fi lover at heart. 🙂 But her voice is up there with those you mention, Lauren Bacall and Cary Grant. Then there’s Kate Hepburn, Clark Gable (ah, Rhett!), and James Earl Jones. All voices I love. Thanks for picking up on smoky. I was going to say cigarette voice but that’s more appropriate for a diner waitress. Smoky worked better for Olivia.

    Edie, I agree that it’s difficult to define how we sculpt our characters. Sometimes they’re just born and grow, aren’t they? Or so it seems. A lot must be worked out subconsciously. And I guess the more we write, the more we learn.

    Thanks for your comments. I tend to wonder at times…is anyone going to actually read these ramblings? Thanks for being there, all of you!

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