I revel in springtime now in a way that I never did when I was living in Australia. There, winter is relatively short and you can look forward to sun and light returning in no time at all – in fact you take it for granted. But here in Ireland, the arrival of spring is never a certain event. When it does decide to make an appearance it marks the end of a long, cold, dark winter and I can’t help but feel a certain excitement at the heat in the air, the flush of new grass, the confused ambling of bees and the explosion of tiny buds that signal the return of life to the garden. It’s something you have to live through to truly appreciate and it wasn’t until I had experienced my first winter in Eire that I began to understand some of the ancient culture that surrounds me here.
Not too far from where I live is a 5,000+ year old stone age passage tomb called Newgrange. It is just as large and significant a monument as Stonehenge, but rather than being open to the air it is an enclosed mound with an entrance that leads you into a narrow tunnel and ends in a confined chamber. At dawn on the winter solstice the light from the rising sun fills the chamber (on the rare occasions when it’s not cloudy), illuminating the stone basins that once held the cremated remains of an ancient people. This magnificent tomb overlooks the green sweep of the Boyne valley where you can see the remains of dozens of smaller tombs dotted across the landscape. It’s a place of great beauty and obvious power, but the significance of a structure built so prominently and aligned for such a specific time of the year clearly underlines the fact that mid-winter was crucial to the people who worked so hard to create Newgrange.
Imagine a time when the onset of winter, particularly after a bad harvest, could mean a long period of deprivation or even starvation. The nights would be long and dark, the winds freezing and the constant damp could suck the warmth from your bones. There were no electric lights or gas fires, only the quivering flames of the central hearth as the winter winds pierced the thatch above your head. Animals would be huddled alongside your family for warmth, fleas would share your bed and rats would raid your stores. There was no guarantee of surviving through to spring. So it was incredibly important that people knew when the days would begin to lengthen once more. It marked a turning point; fresh hope for continued survival. So it’s not difficult to imagine the celebrations that would have accompanied mid-winter, not to mention the excitement that would have greeted spring.
If you’re writing fantasy set in a harsher time, particularly a fantasy world that’s similar to our own, it’s worth trying to put yourself inside the minds of real people in the past so that you can build characters who need to always be aware of the challenges of their environment in order to overcome them. A harsh environment breeds strong people who are determined to survive, and who celebrate and cherish their survival as the seasons turn. They adapt to their world, they find creative ways to survive it and even wonderful ways to enjoy it – because their environment affects everything they do on a daily basis.
Some excellent examples of fantasy where the characters suffer from their environment just as much as the events surrounding them can be found in the works of J.V. Jones’ Sword of Shadows series and Juliet Marrillier’s Wolfskin and Foxmask novels. Both writers have placed their characters in spectacularly harsh environments, where you’re just as uncertain whether the elements will allow them survive, let alone the people and other horrors thrown at them. Nature can be an unforgiving mistress and these writers have used this to their advantage, pushing their characters to their limits and forcing them to find ways to survive. It makes for a gritty and satisfying experience for the reader.
I’ve set up a Pinterest board on this topic as I find inspiring sites on this topic. But watching a bit of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears can put you in the mood for survival in the harshest of places. Or find an old, un-insulated Irish country house and stay there for the winter – I promise you, it’s not a pleasant experience.