It’s only hours before Christmas celebrations commence. Outside the wind is howling and the air is frigid, but the sun is shining. It feels like Christmas. An occasional burst of snow blows by, and all the trees brittled by ice are bending and swaying. It is the kind of day that inspires writers.
Yesterday, as heavy rain fell and cold air descended, glazing the trees and everything beyond my windows with ice, I spent part of my afternoon reading the first of Edgar Johnson’s two volume biography of Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph. Johnson’s book is a marvelous, endlessly readable volume that makes me want to march through all of Dickens’s works.
Today’s deepening winter cold reminds me of those dark, dreary days on London streets where young Dickens trudged to the blacking house to fill bottles with boot black and paste on labels, a dirty and laborious job that for his creative soul was unquestionably mind-numbing. Yet it is clear that he used that experience and thousands of others in his life to create the memorable characters who are so alive in his books. In fact, I learned that one of his childhood friends was named Fagin, a name that should sound familiar.
The cold winter day also reminds me of the chill of Poe’s raven as it sat upon his bust of Pallas. Cold and wind and bluster and chill all become platforms for mood—and even story, as in the case of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, whose first chapter is about the weather.
Needless to say, cold weather sets the tone, grounds a good story—and eventually causes a reader to tuck a blanket tighter around her shoulders or shudder at the sound of a sudden gust. It is because we live in the weather. It surrounds us, makes us shiver or sweat. It baths us in glorious sunshine or it freezes the blood in our veins. Weather is universal.
For me, a book without this kind of setting, without the part of life that is universal is missing something. And it is days just like this, bitterly cold and windy, that penetrate (and inspire) my writer’s mind and soul.