Paul and I just started watching Game of Thrones. (I know — we’re behind the times.) The first episode is called “Winter is Coming” because in the fantasy realm of The Seven Kingdoms, it has been summer for nearly a decade, and now a cold, dark, and very long winter is approaching.
“We live in real-life Winterfell,” I said to Paul. “Except instead of “winter is coming,” winter is already here.”
We recently moved to Minneapolis, and the Minnesota winter is no joke. We had our first snow in early November, and ever since temperatures have pretty much stayed below freezing, often venturing into the negative degrees Fahrenheit at night.
Outside my window each morning, I see snow-topped roofs and the half-frozen Mississippi River. Crows venture across the snow-covered ice sheets, and steam rises up from the flat, gray expanse. On especially cold mornings, the waterfalls freeze, turning into thick, white icicles in mid-air, and when I go outside, my head aches from the cold while ice crystals try to form inside my nose.
For Thanksgiving, Paul and I drove two hours north to a lodge in Nisswa, Minnesota. On Thanksgiving Day, the temperature was negative 9 degrees Fahrenheit. We piled on layers and went out for a walk on Gull Lake, which was frozen solid. “Soon people’ll start driving their cars on it,” an employee told us. Paul and I turned our faces towards the bleak sun, low in the sky even though it seemed the day had just begun. When we turned back to the lodge, our eyes hurt, as if the liquid inside them was trying to freeze.
Despite the bitter temperatures, Paul and I still do things outside. I take walks along the river or through the neighborhood of Victorian houses on Nicollet Island. One day, Paul and I even attempted to do an outdoor scavenger hunt despite the fact that it was 14 degrees outside. We were managing to stay warm until I slipped while climbing on an icy statue to retrieve a clue and fell in the snow. Paul retrieved the clue, but his cotton gloves got wet in the process. With wet gloves and wet jeans (we don’t yet own snow pants), we quit the hunt in fear of frostbite and retreated home to drink hot tea under blankets, which is probably what most people in Minneapolis do all winter long.
And it is a long one. Paul and I are already getting tired of the cold that has seeped into our bones. I’m tired of donning my snow boots and heavy coat each day, my hair crackling with static. But we’ve still got four more months of this. The snow won’t melt until late April. In Minneapolis you get six whole months of winter.
Which is funny because I lived for a long time in New Orleans, which gets six whole months of summer. In New Orleans, you step outside in the summer and the air is so thick you could chew it. You live in a constant bath of hot, humid air and your own rum-scented sweat. In New Orleans, “winter” (which means temperatures in the fifties) starts December first and is usually over by Mardi Gras Day in February. If I were in The Big Easy right now, I’d be drinking a frozen eggnog daiquiri instead of this mug of cocoa.
On a semi-related note, a few weeks ago, Paul and I went to see Interstellar, a movie that involves space travel, and one of the planets the characters visit was a frozen wasteland sort of place with days and nights both 67 hours long. I remember my first thought was not, surprisingly, about the cold, but about how strange it would be to live in a place where one day is 67 hours long. How would that change a person’s daily rhythms, not to mention a society’s?
All of this is to say that climate and other environmental factors can make for an interesting premise to a story, or add volumes to the tone and atmosphere of a narrative. Just look at Ursula K. LeGuinn’s novel, The Left-Hand of Darkness, set on an extremely cold planet. And weather can work for realistic fiction, too. When I think of The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, I think of the steamy, lethargic heat of southern summers without air-conditioning. And Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, set in a stark Newfoundland fishing village, has the power to make my teeth chatter no matter what time of year it is.
As a writing exercise, perhaps I’ll try thinking about what it would be like to live in a land where the seasons last for years instead of months, or where it takes years for the ocean tides to rise and fall. How would life be different on a planet where the days are 67 hours long, or where the weather is so variable it could be a hundred degrees one day and negative 9 the next? What about a story set in a place where it never stops raining, or where mid-day is so dangerously hot that anyone who goes outside underneath the three suns risks being burned alive?
Or maybe I’ll just write about the sticky heat of New Orleans, or the dry, biting cold of Minnesota.
Right now I sort of feel like I’m living a story about a woman from Summerland who moves to Winterfell and is forced to face her first bitterly cold winter. So far I’m surviving, but I still have many months to go.
Winter is here… for a while.