It's Snow Joke

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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Considering how much snow has been a hindrance for much of the US the past couple weeks, including for me getting writing and posting done, I thought I'd point out some thoughts about using snow in your writing, whether you are writing realistic fiction, genre fiction, or non-fiction.

People have different attitudes about snow. Some absolutely love it, like my son and my in-laws' dog; some fear it, especially when it comes to traveling, and some hate it. Sometimes opinions will change depending on the location, time of year, temperature, quantity, and how much wind comes with it. I'm sure many of you saw the reports about the Metrodome roof collapse from the sheer volume of snow that descended on Minneapolis, 17 inches according to the Buffalo News . When the setting of the story takes place in winter, consider these factors.

Location: Some regions are more likely to get snow than others. Tropical regions don't see any unless a sheer fluke of weather/climate change causes it to happen. A region that doesn't normally get snow is going to be more likely to panic over even a dusting than a region that is used to it, mainly with concern about what could have happened to cause such a shift in weather and what the effect would be on the ecology than the snow itself. Even though Florida hasn't had snow or much of it, the record breaking low temperatures has caused plants and trees to freeze over. Considering the importance of Florida's orange groves, this is a significant impact on the ecology and economy of their region.

Whether you keep the snow's effect on a local scale involving only a town or a larger scale where some areas are more affected than others, this a potential source of social, political, and economic conflict in your story. It could either be the primary conflict or one that serves as a backdrop to the personal conflict of your characters.

The other part of location that affects snow is the nearness or distance from a large body of water. Regions near a large lake or river will have more snow, at least until the water freezes over. And if near two or more bodies of water...well, you can imagine the increased effect. We have a local lake within a few miles of us as well as Lake Erie about an hour's drive to our northwest. Double whammy.

Time of year: When you expect to have snow, you usually make preparations: buying snow shovels, bags of salt, warm clothing, extra food supplies, and other necessities; getting the snowblowers and plows ready; and setting up the logistics of road clearing and travel. But when snow comes early, people might not be as well prepared as they'd hoped. This sets up conflicts with health and safety on both a personal and societal level. Travelers who get caught in an unseasonable snowfall might not have warm enough clothing to keep them from freezing or have enough food with them even if they do find shelter. Bandits may become more desperate, but at the same time, find that snow hampers their ability to raid on a large scale.

This problem also comes up at the end of the season. If people fail to maintain their preparations long enough or they've run out of supplies due to a long hard winter season, they could still have serious issues. Snow might hamper their ability to restock, whether it be because they couldn't get to town or because the town had run out of things when their shipments couldn't get through. This was a key issue in The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Time of year also affects the quantity of snow, which I will get to shortly. People expect to see more snow in the middle of winter than the leading and trailing edges of the season. This may lead to conflicting attitudes regarding preparations.

Temperature: Not only is temperature itself a great source of conflict, particularly extreme highs and lows, but it also affects quantity and quality of snow. When temperatures are closer to the freezing point of water, snowflakes tend to be fluffier and more packable. That's the sort that makes wonderful snow forts, snowmen, and snowballs. However, in lower temperatures, snow tends to be finer and more likely to blow off the ground in a gust of wind. That's part of the problem my family has been facing. Our driveway won't stay clear very well, even when it stops snowing, because the snow is so dry and light, that the wind keeps shifting it to the low areas, i.e. the driveway, forcing us to clear it several times a day.

With such a long stretch to keep clear, and in such bitter cold, it becomes an arduous task, even with a tractor and snowblower. And that is only feasible in the daylight. We're struggling to find someone willing (and smart enough to do it the intelligent way) to plow it, saving the snowblower for keeping the edges tidy and pushed back. Plus the plow would have the lights to do it in the early morning and late at night.

We've had our share of conflict the past week and half with trying to get to work, damage to vehicles, and getting stuck due to quantity, temperature, and wind. Since we've had so many problems with a passable driveway, we've had to walk through the snow to get our paper and mail, get our boy to the bus stop and back, and having to do repairs in the cold. This means putting on appropriate clothing to keep us warm enough in the combination of wind and temperature. People who don't take such precautions could end up with frostbite or worse. Even when you take care for warmth, there is still the problem of moving through such deep snow, which brings me to...

Quantity: Light snowfall is easy to walk through, though it can and does make roadways and sidewalks slippery. Slip-and-fall accidents, skidding vehicles, and multi-car pileups are more likely in snowy weather. Airports have delays even in just a moderate snowfall.

Deep snow causes its own share of problems even without extremely low temps or much wind by making it hard to keep roadways, tracks, and other passages clear for travel and shipment and for walking in it. People with skis, snowshoes, or other footgear for staying on top of snow just have to deal with coordinating the gear, so they don't fall, and perhaps have muscle burn and other injuries from unaccustomed activity. People who are used to the gear will suffer fewer problems than those who aren't.

Without that gear, people have to wade in it. Those who are in excellent cardio health will find this less strenuous than those who aren't as fit. I'd consider myself reasonably fit, but with having to push through snow that had drifted to knee height and deeper, I had to stop several times while going down the drive yesterday to catch my breath and ease my exertion induced nausea. I did better when I forced myself to stick to a slower pace, but it meant I was in the cold longer. Of course having to stop frequently didn't get me down to the mailbox any faster, so not really a difference after all.

Wind: Though it affects the snow itself less than the other factors, wind plays a significant role in the severity of snow conditions. It blows snow around which reduces visibility and creates problematic drifts. It can also create dangerous windchills that some people are forced to endure in order to deal with the snow and snow's problems. Sounds become distorted, making it hard to hear people calling for help.

For the most part, I enjoy snow. It looks pretty when it covers the ground enough to hide winter-brown plants. But when there is so much that it causes problems, especially when the wind exacerbates the difficulties, I don't like it. I'd prefer to have much less of it. Fortunately, since we live in an area that expects frequent snowfalls (lovely lake effect we have here *rolls eyes*), we prepare by keeping food stocked up for when we can't get into town. We might run out of preferred supplies, but we will be fed. We also have multiple shovels, a couple snowblowers, and lots of winter clothing. And a sled, perfect for pulling a small boy down to the bus stop.

I hope when you write about snow that you will keep these factors in mind. Don't forget to keep them in mind for your own winter weather care. Be safe.


Angela Ackerman said...

Great job here! I really like the bit about the quantity/consistency of snow. This is one thing I think is important to get right in fiction. Movies are full of cat-like walks atop the snow, but in reality, that doesn't happen much. Details are everything and snowfall will alter a character's energy levels, the distance they can travel, their ability to forage and a host of other things.

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Jaleh D said...

Exactly. That whole cat-like thing on the snow reminds me of a comment someone made in a LoTR parody about Legolas: "nancing little elf." But most people have to slog or wear special gear. It's not as easy as it is in the movies, though most of us know that if we stop to think about it. But reminders certainly never hurt.

Vonny said...

Like your in-laws' dog, I love the snow. Have you ever heard of thunder-snow? I hadn't until it happened here a few years ago. Coolest thing ever.

Jaleh D said...

I'd heard of thunder-snow, but I haven't seen it yet.

I think I'm going to talk about some of the fun things with snow next week. There wasn't room in this article to really cover that part as I'd intended. Snow isn't all bad, even if I do feel like cursing it right now. I'd be happy if the wind died down and the snow stopped coming down in anything heavier than a light flurry. Then I wouldn't mind so much with going out and having fun in it.

Jai Joshi said...

I've never lived in a place that got a lot of snow but I've visited places that do and seen how bad it can get.

Thanks for this post, Jaleh. There's a lot of informative stuff here. I hadn't considered how nearby bodies of water are a factor in how much snow a place gets but it makes perfect sense.


Jaleh D said...

Glad you found it useful, Jai. And trust me, if I need to write about areas like India or Texas, I'll be writing for things I might not consider. I learned so much from following your posts about your temple expedition and trips to India.

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