So You Want To Write About The Cold

Take It Easy On The Visuals

It’s easy to fall back on visuals when you write. Colors, actions, how tall something is. When you work with cold, it’s a great time to try and create balance with some of the other senses. Especially because cold itself can’t be seen. Check it out:

Is this soup warm? Cold? Really, super hot? You can't tell from a visual, right? We assume it's hot because, well, it's soup. And we assume it's cold outside when we see someone wearing a heavy coat. And we flip it to "show" the cold in a story, describing someone in a heavy coat, therefore proving it's cold. It works in a pinch, but you're better off spending time describing something invisible by using something other than visual cues. 

Think about what you hear when it’s cold where you live. What do you smell? Firewood? Diesel engines left running? Think about all the non-visual cues that come with cold.

Go Non-Traditional

I live in Colorado. It can easily be a cloudless, sunny day where the temperature is below freezing.

Cliche snow is pure white powder, but the way a lot of us experience snow is as that hard gray mass in the gutter. Cliche rain always comes with thunder. Cliche wind always, always howls.

Whatever the cliche, go the opposite. Go different. Make your cold something special and unusual to match your story, which is also special and unusual. 

Don’t Make Me Do Math

Instead of telling me that your character shivers, consider what that looks like to someone standing across from them, and tell me that instead.

If you’re in the U.S., does “23 degrees Celsius” mean a lot to you? Do you think it means a lot to a reader?

Look at the weather on the news. They’ve got the numbers, and they’ve got colors, light to deep blue. They’ve got a picture of a thermometer coated in ice. They make some poor newbie stand outside in what looks like polar exploration gear just to SHOW us that there is, in fact, a blizzard. As if we wouldn’t believe them otherwise. As if we've never seen snow before.

They do all that because numbers don’t mean much. Not when it comes to telling a reader how cold it is and how that cold feels.

It’s all relative anyway. 40 degrees Portland feels different than 40 degrees in the night in the deserts of the Southwest. Any Chicagoan will tell you that the 15th day in a row of freezing temperatures has a different flavor than a cold day here and there.

We know that -15 is a miserable temperature, but does “-15” describe the experience? Nope.

Try something else. Does your coffee get cold before you’re halfway through the cup? Do you see tossed cigarette butts that haven’t been smoked down to anywhere near the filter, abandoned because it’s just too damn cold outside? Abandon the number in favor of something else. Challenge yourself to replace those numbers with something better.

Contrast and Transition

You don’t want to keep me in the cold the whole time. Contrast helps. It’s like dramatic tension. It can’t always be high. It can’t always build. It’s got to be tension, then release. Tension, then release.

Contrast helps, and if you can warm me up between periods of cold, you get that contrast.

And when you have contrast, you can make good use of the transitions.

Find a crowded, warm coffee shop, and park yourself. Watch how people enter a warm room, and watch how people leave a warm spot to go back outside. How do they act when they come inside? What do their faces look like? Do they stomp even though there’s no snow on their shoes? How long does it take before they start to feel human again? When they leave, what do they do? Do they steel themselves or just push the door? 

Writing someone who enters and exits the cold gives you a lot more to do than writing about someone who is constantly in the cold, and it lets you remind the reader about the conditions without constantly saying, “Oh, by the way, it’s still really cold.”

Deeper

Don’t tell me your teeth chatter. Tell me what that feels like. Instead of telling me that your character shivers, consider what that looks like to someone standing across from them, and show me that instead.

Skip the part where you tell me it’s cold. Instead, tell me what the cold feels like.What your eyes feel like. The hairs inside your nose. Your mouth between breaths.

If you can replace a single word with your own description of the physical action or sensation, go for it. 

Get Cold

Ice bath. Lay down on a cold sidewalk. Cryotherapy. How is it different when you take a spill in the cold? How is the cold different when you’re wet for 8 hours as opposed to standing in a walk-in fridge for 2 minutes in the heat of summer? 

If you’re writing about guns, you go and you shoot a gun. Likewise, you need to experience the cold.

We think we know the cold, but don’t rely on your memory. Have a fresh experience, and have that experience as a writer. You know how you read a book as a writer and how that’s different? Same principle. Be cold as a writer.

Image of Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places
Manufacturer: Little, Brown and Company
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Image of Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places
Manufacturer: Little, Brown and Company
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Column by Peter Derk

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado.  He's a master of library science (which is a real thing) and considers himself a master of picking out the one functional treadmill in any gymnasium (which is not a real thing).  Buy him a drink sometime and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public library's restroom.

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