It’s cold here in Wisconsin, and snowy. I’m not one of those who enjoy being outside in winter. So, instead of putting on a pair of ice skates or skis, I decided to stay warm and cozy at my writing desk and find out how some of the best authors describe winter.
There is art to writing descriptive prose. It requires self-control to ensure that every word counts toward moving the story forward. Stephen King said, “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
Notice how the poet and essayist, Donald Hall, used descriptive prose to set this rural scene.
From Seasons at Eagle Pond
They seem tentative and awkward at first, then in a hastening host a whole brief army falls, white militia paratrooping out of the close sky over various textures, making them one. Snow is white and gray, part and whole, infinitely various yet infinitely repetitious, soft and hard, frozen and melting, a creaking underfoot and a soundlessness. But first of all it is the reversion of many into one. It is substance, almost the idea of substance, that turns grass, driveway, hayfield, old garden, log pile, Saab, watering trough, collapsed barn, and stonewall into the one white.
Descriptive prose is like art says W.M. Hunt, a professor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. “When you see birds fly you do not see any feathers, you are not to draw reality, but reality as it appears to you.”
In this excerpt from her memoir, An American Childhood, author Annie Dillard shows how her character perceives a winter scene.
Now we sat in the dark dining room, hushed. The big snow outside, the big snow on the roof, silenced our words and the scrape of our forks and our chairs. The dog was gone, the world outside was dangerously cold, and the big snow held the houses down and the people in.
Behind me, tall chilled windows gave out onto the narrow front yard and the street. A motion must have caught my mother’s eye; she rose and moved to the windows, and Father and I followed. There we saw the young girl, the transfigured Jo Ann Sheehy, skating alone under the streetlight.
She was turning on ice skates inside the streetlight’s yellow cone of light—illumined and silent. She tilted and spun. She wore a short skirt, as if Edgerton Avenue’s asphalt had been the ice of an Olympic arena. She wore mittens and a red knitted cap below which her black hair lifted when she turned. Under her skates the street’s packed snow shone; it illumined her from below, the cold light striking her under her chin.
I stood at the tall window, barely reaching the sill; the glass fogged before my face, so I had to keep moving or hold my breath. What was she doing out there? Was everything beautiful so bold?
Note those last two sentences. Could this winter scene also serve as a plot twist in a work of fiction?
It’s January—the coldest winter month. If you live in the north you either love or hate it. If you live in the far south perhaps you have never experienced snow or the stinging cold of a bleak January day. But as a writer think about how you would describe it.
Study how authors have described winter in their novels and essays. Look out your window or look at winter images, both still and videos. Then sit down and write your best winter prose.
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