While writers sing holiday tunes, sip eggnog, and enjoy getting together with family and friends like everyone else – they’re also itching to write. But grabbing enough time to sit down at a desk and write is almost impossible during late December and early January. One solution is to jot down notes about holiday traditions (yours and others you stumble upon) to use in later stories, articles, and poems.
As you go about your holiday preparations and activities, keep a small pad of paper and pen (or for the technically advanced, some sort of mini electronic note-taking device) nearby at all times. You should take notes on your traditions whenever and wherever you notice them. If time is available, expand a bit on your jottings later that same day before you forget details.
For example: My ex-sister-in-law is a wonderful cook. She stops by my home for Christmas lunch, and always brings some fabulous baked good or homemade candy or, if I’m lucky, both. This year, it was a lemon pound cake with icing so lemony it almost made your teeth hurt. My notes not only reflected the gift, my fondness for the giver, and sensory tidbits – but also speculation on what such a gift would have meant in a world where citrus foods were scarce. On an icy planet, the lemon-flavored cake would have been a very valuable gift. Indeed, it would have been a kingly gift. Then, what purpose would the lemon cake gift have served? A bribe? A reward? Advance payment for a favor or job? Or just a token of friendship?
If your holidays are quiet this year, go back to past winter celebrations. Scribble all the special memories and traditions you can recall. Expand on these. Wait a couple of days, then add to the list. Soon you’ll have all sorts of great material for writing. And especially make notes on the less-familiar and less-commercial traditions. Those are more likely to be unique, and will therefore offer something different to your readers when you incorporate them in your writing.
For example: When my kids were young, we not only left milk and cookies out on Christmas Eve for St. Nick, but also carrots for his reindeer. I suspect this is a common practice. But what if the gift-giving elf rode a polar bear instead of a sleigh – would it be appropriate for small children to leave raw meat or small dead animals out for the bear? How about if Father Christmas was Mother Solstice, and she arrived in a crystal ship blown around the world by the winter winds? What would she like to nibble on while she delivered her gifts? And the winter winds – what would you leave out to thank them?
And then, there’s the old writer’s standby – borrowing from the experiences of others. Look at and listen to the traditions that others are observing at this time of year. There’s a lot of candle lighting: Kwanza, Hanukkah, and Christmas welcome-candles. There are special foods prepared and eaten in various cultures – many of them have symbolic meaning. Here’s where writers need not only to take notes, but follow up on those scribblings with a little research. When borrowing from other cultures, you need to be careful not to offend. Even when you intend to change everything about a practice, you need to understand your source material.
For example: A friend from Germany told me of visiting her grandparents in the mountains for the winter holidays. At night, she and the other children would carry paper lanterns on long sticks chanting a verse. Eventually, the lanterns would catch fire, and be dropped into the snow to be extinguished. The child whose lantern stay lit the longest would receive a reward. Fire-safety concerns aside, this is an interesting tradition. I’m not sure where its roots are, but the idea of light burning in the cold darkness of winter is an old one that goes back to Norse sources. I need to do some more research, but there are dozens of ways to tweak this tradition and include it in a story.
So whether you’re hanging out under the mistletoe and holly, munching on cookies, gazing at a miniature train garden, or carrying candles as you ski down a snow-covered slope – recognize and record holiday traditions. Then, when winter settles in, you’ll have a treasure-trove of ideas to use in your writing.
Vonnie Winslow Crist is the author of “The Greener Forest,” a collection of fantasy short stories in which the world of Faerie collides with our workaday world: http://coldmoonpress.com/quickbuy.html Visit her at http://vonniewinslowcrist.com or http://vonniewinslowcrist.wordpress.com