Curse You, Empathy! Or, How ‘Bout This Weather?

I’ve discovered that, when I’m writing, I’m highly sensitive to whether the temperature of the characters’ environment matches the one I’m currently in. I wrote most of The Dogwatchers – which takes place in a temperate place in autumn, but includes a lot of magical snowstorms and the like – while cold. Much of it got done in the barely-heated cottage we had in England during the winter of 2009, and I finished it during a snowstorm last winter. I remember this seeming wonderfully appropriate. Now, though, I’m potentially running up against the opposite happening.

Looking Like Lani has a semi-tropical setting. The characters wear toga-like garments without getting chilly. And the weather here in Chapel Hill is just starting to turn cool.

I don’t anticipate this being too much of a problem. I certainly don’t intend to allow it to become a problem. Far too silly. And I did work on The Dogwatchers during warmer months – perhaps I just don’t remember that as distinctly because it didn’t have the same nice, appropriate feeling.

Still, there are times when I’m trying to write a scene in Looking Like Lani, and the thought of all of my characters in sleeveless garments seems wrong. Apparently, while I’m capable of writing a character who is sad when I’m happy, or who is male when I’m female, or who is an elf when I’m actually a fuzzy kitten masquerading as a human on the Internet*, I somehow have trouble with a character who is warm when I’m cold.

Perhaps this is because, when I get into the writing groove, I can project my mind into the story pretty well, but a temperature difference is an anchor that’s hard to ignore. Like that one movie where the guy time-travels into the past using only THE POWER OF HIS MIND and he’s fallen in love with his dream woman and everything’s CRAZY AWESOME but then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a penny dated from the year he came from and OH SNAP he gets dragged back to his own time. It’s just like that, only instead of a penny in a time from before the penny was made, I have, like, a scarf in a place where people are chilling in not-togas and wishing they could catch a breeze.

On the upside, this does confirm that I practice body-centered writing, something I’ve always liked, both as a writer and as a reader. If the author stays aware of how characters are physically feeling, it adds depth, realism, and sympathy – everyone knows what it’s like to be tired, cold, or hungry, and many stories are light on the description of characters’ physical states, despite the fact that these tend to be major factors in real people’s in-the-moment experiences. Body-centered writing also makes you less likely to do that thing some people do where they just forget that Our Valiant Protagonist was wounded last chapter, or should really be exhausted right now from that long march, or got rained on and never had a chance to dry.

It has occurred to me that I could start another story, one with a more temperate/cold setting, but this, again, would be exceedingly silly. (And would enable me to continue having a rather ridiculous limitation.) Anyway, I don’t like to have more than one major project in the first draft stage at the same time. I plan to just push through, and suspect the difficulty will fade pretty quickly.

Anyone else run into anything like this?

*Oh no, my secret! And the “Delete” key is too far away for my tiny paws to reach!

5 thoughts on “Curse You, Empathy! Or, How ‘Bout This Weather?

  • Today I realized I actually have a similar problem with clothes. I was reading historical fiction (have I ever read historical fiction before? but this one’s really good!) in which it was ambiguous whether the character was wearing socks or stockings under his shoes. This REALLY BOTHERED ME. Having clothes on the expected parts of one’s body is such a fundamental part of our everyday experience. How can this character go around acting like everything is normal when he’s not dressed properly?

    I guess many people have the same problem with historical underwear.

    And ugh, just spent my first day in a while doing homework for pretty much seven hours straight. I had three writing assignments due today and left them mostly undone, thinking they would be really easy to knock off. Then I realized that writing an annotated bibliography with ten items meant I had to actually read ten scholarly articles. Urgh. Bed now.

  • I saw that movie! “Bid Time Return,” wasn’t it?

    I actually find it easier to write depressing scenes when I’m cold and happy ones when I’m warm.

    • That may well be the movie. I don’t remember the title.

      For the mood of a scene, I tend to need proper music. Occasionally, this means listening to just one or two songs over and over because they’re just so right.

  • One February I went to a community theater performance of Terra Nova (Scott’s expedition to Anarctica) and I swear they cut the heat and opened doors somewhere out of sight. It was especially noticeable after the intermission. As characters were freezing to death on stage we were getting pretty chilly in the audience.

    If you were living alone I’d suggest you adjust the thermostat to match the season you’re writing about. I love the idea of body-centered writing. I have different perfumes for different roles (e.g. one for judging, one for work) and putting on a certain scent puts me in the mood for that activity. You’re welcome to try that too if you like.

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