Tuesday, December 8

Seasonal Affect, Not Disorders

By Bonnie Randall 

Part of the How They Do It Series

It’s the holiday season and I’m kicking around an idea for a Christmas-themed short story to hang up on my blog (I like posting free fiction there, it gives me the illusion that I’m building my readership ;) ) but I’m reluctant because I prefer for my fiction to have wide appeal—so while I’m a fan of seasonal stories myself, I confess I’m reluctant to read a Christmas story outside of December. Or a Valentine’s romance if it isn’t February.

Yet occasionally I come across a gem of a book set within a certain season and I’m happy to read it anytime (candy canes in June? How mint!) so now, as I toy with crafting my own prose, I am pondering: what gives certain seasonal pieces of fiction cross-calendar pollination while others limit their readability to the holiday at hand? I have some guesses (but that’s all they are; guesses) but I’d like a little more feedback, so this article will be less of a “how-to” and more of a “how do you?” in generating some discussion on how we can make seasonally-themed stories work outside their holiday of reference.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1. If the Season Amplifies the Magic or Magical Realism Which Already Exists in the Story

 Like…maybe you have Cupid in your story, and maybe he works every day of the year—but has to fill a bigger quota on Valentine’s. In a monastery. (Bonne Chance with that, Cupid). Or maybe your infertile heroine sees two lines on the stick…at Christmas time (How did that happen?!) I think when the genre already has us suspending our disbelief and accepting magic, that a seasonal twist becomes more about the magic than the holiday—and therefore it has a broader appeal.

But let’s say magic isn’t your thing (I love magical realism myself—but every time I try to write it I end up with something that looks more like horror. Ms. Romance, that’s me) How about:

2. If the Season Amplifies the Intensity of Emotion in the Story

Being deployed for war would be wrenching anytime, but I’d guess it would be somehow more poignant at Christmas (and here he had that engagement ring in his pocket. *sigh*). Or more bitterly ironic on the 4th of July.

3. If it Accelerates the Irony

Thanksgiving, a time for intensely reflecting on gratitude, would likely be the worst time to receive a cancer diagnosis—but an excellent footing for a chick-lit novel to really twist the knife of irony. And how about that Independence Day holiday? What a day for the jury to file back in with a guilty verdict (and therefore obvious incarceration) for your heroine’s previously free client? Christmas would be a cruel time to have a stillbirth, and it would suck to be left at the altar—but be particularly devastating if it happened on your Valentine’s Day wedding.

I think anytime a setting—place or time—runs counter-intuitive to the theme or events the characters are bumping up against, it can really transcend the season it’s set in with regard to pulling a reader in.

4. If it Underscores the Character Arc

Scrooge, ladies and gentlemen. Need we say more?

5. If it Adds to the Hilarity

The Grim Reaper scares the crap out of her—(those red eyeballs! Something tells her he might be the real deal. GULP!)—but he has the cutest butt at the Halloween party.

Or…your character’s jewelry store just got robbed—by a tiny tribe of men who all have mysteriously pointy shoes and elf hats. And, bizarrely, they each had their own pre-wrapped Christmas boxes for all the stuff they took and they ate his bagged lunch while they tied him to a chair then complained that he hadn’t packed cookies. Who were they?!

Remember Arthur Carlson's famous line from that old show WKRP on Thanksgiving? “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly?” That’s funny anytime. All the time. So I think putting the season to work comedically can be gold.

And….that’s where I run out of ideas. But how about YOU? What gold do you think there is to be mined by using a holiday as a setting for stories? Please share and, to each of you, may the peace, joy, and especially the MAGIC of the Season visit you all, in great abundance.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. Good question. I don't know. The best example I can think of is from a film. While You Were Sleeping was a holiday release which is a year-round classic. It is full of Christmas music and Christmas parties and snow. The holiday is used to intensify the mc's loneliness (as you've mentioned) but it also provides the reason for the inciting event. It puts the mc in the right place at the right time, and the traditions of Christmas continually force the mc into uncomfortable situations, upping the stakes. In addition, the story stretches just past new year, so maybe you forget about the holidays a bit by the time the credits roll. What do you think? Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. Oh! I was also reminded of `While You Were Sleeping'! Such a great movie. :)

    Several of the Dresden Files take place over Halloween, and when that happens Harry Dreseden thinks about the irony of fighting monsters... on his BIRTHDAY! (Makes me laugh every time.)

    If I remember right, `Summer Knight' ends on Midsummer, (appropriately enough for the book that introduces the dangers of fairy court).

    Even when one of the books falls on a holiday, said holiday never overshadows Harry fighting evil to save the world, though the holiday is sometimes used as a plot point.

  3. Clearly I need to watch While You Were Sleeping! (Lucky thing Netflix is my friend)
    I love that the traditions of Christmas keep upping the stakes, and yeah - if the denouement happens outside the parameters of Christmas, I would guess is that this would allow the plot to be true to the story, and not to the season. Great comments!

    1. You do :) We actually just watched this again last week. Christmas really helps underscore the protagonist's loneliness and desire for family connection, which is why she goes along with the "oops" that happens and gets her into the mess. It also gives reasons for the family to say "hey, join us" so often. Holidays bring that out in people. Would have been weird if it was random week.

    2. I am so on it! Both my girls will be home this weekend so I'll make it our date night. Great recommend!

  4. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham is an all year round read, the season amplifies the how people act so extreme and it's so damn funny and also a quick read so just right for a cheer me up pick me up!

    1. I have always loved Grisham too - thanks for this recommend!

  5. For me, as a reader, I'll look at the cover art. If it's a winter scene, no problem. But, if it has holiday decorations, that's kind of a turn off for any other time of year. After the cover art, I'll continue on with an interesting story regardless of the time of year.

    1. Totally good point Lori - I do that too, all the time. And here's my shallow confession: if I am reading romance, I won't pick up the book if I don't think the dude on the cover is good looking :P

  6. Wow, this is a nice post and totally on point! I've been toying around with writing a heart-warming Christmas-y novel (because Christmas is really my most favorite holiday in the world), but my problem is I'm marketing myself as a fantasy/horror/paranormal writer. Your suggestions are golden! Thank you so much Bonnie :D