Writing a Scene for Ashes on Fallen Snow

Yesterday on my Facebook Page I posted the following:

I haven’t posted on my page for a couple of months – I’ve been so busy re-writing the beginning and ending of “Ashes on Fallen Snow”, so I apologise for my absence. I promise you that I haven’t fallen out with anyone! The book is now completely written, but it is two-dimensional – just words on paper. Now I am breathing life into it and, to me, this is the best part of writing a novel. I have never had any formal training in creative writing, so please don’t think that my way of doing this is anywhere to be found in any National Curriculum!

The process of writing is, I suspect personal to each author and on many levels a very private and lonely activity. However, today I am going to write a scene to insert into “Ashes on Fallen Snow” and I thought my readers might like to have a bit of an insight into how I go about writing a descriptive passage.

First of all, I think of the scene in my novel I am describing, close my eyes and step inside, seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing and tasting everything around me.

Then I brainstorm on a sheet of paper. This is what I have written as a point of reference this morning, ready to capture the creative flow I know will come once I start to write:

Snow metaphors: Masking the truth; cotton wool for a troubled mind; ferns of frost forming on glass are like creeping secrets; footprints in fresh snow – new start. Deepening snow – dampening, dulling a painful past.

Words and phrases:
Diamonds; holding down, illuminating from below, light reversed, wondrous miracles tramped underfoot; grandeur; parts of a whole; living becoming dead; elegant; creaking underfoot; hush; silence; fogged glass/condensation. Vicious unkindness when it melts revealing hard realities.

The brainstorm of metaphors, words and phrases above is not exhaustive. No doubt I’ll think of more as I start writing. I have also drawn myself a mind-map – when I’ve written the scene I’ll post up a photograph of it – together with a copy of the first draft of the scene, which no doubt I will fiddle with endlessly so it might not be the final version that will appear in the novel.

The scene: Boxing Day in 1962. Snow is falling in Kettering and 15-year old Lydia is staring out of the window.

Hopefully, I’ll have it done by the end of the day, so you can have a sneaky peek.”

As promised, here is the mind map and the resulting written scene.  I hope it is of use to someone – who knows, it might even inspire someone to try this technique for themselves and they will end up catching the writing bug and ending up as the next literary sensation (or more likely join the rest of us in the masochistic, obsessive quest for the elusive perfection in the written word we are never quite satisfied with!)

mind mapLydia sat alone by the window in the front room, her new diary open on her lap, pen poised but unable to write anything. She watched the snow for a while, marvelling at the mystery of the intricacy of snowflakes. The intermittent patter on the windowpane should have soothed her troubled thoughts, but in the same way as the cold weather front that was sweeping the country turned tiny drops of moisture into thick clumps of snow, the nugget of worry that had formed inside her since they had arrived on Sunday afternoon began to swell and grow until it made her gasp with its enormity.

She stared at the blank page before her and for a moment wondered why the pen in her hand was shaking. She wasn’t cold: she could feel the warmth from the fire on her legs and Auntie Rose’s thick cardigan was cosy and comforting. It smelled of old ladies – lavender and honeysuckle and the sweet smell of vanilla. She wished she could somehow capture and preserve the fragrance of Auntie Rose’s cardigan and take it with her when they left this house.

Tim’s voice drifted through from the living room again. He was laughing, whooping with delight and singing Frosty the Snowman, while Uncle George said something about finding Margaret’s old sledge in the barn and borrowing a pair of wellington boots for him so that he could play in the snow when they went to Aunt Daisy’s house tomorrow.

It wasn’t fair – while Tim was obviously living in the moment, without a care in the world other than playing in the snow, she was having to worry about where they were going to live after Christmas, how she could earn enough money to put food on the table and most of all, whether they would ever see their mother again. She wrote a few words in her diary: “Today was Boxing Day …”

She couldn’t continue. She would have to try again later because, somehow, her hand wouldn’t stop shaking. It was as if the falling snow was blanking out the words in her head. There was an unnatural, hushed silence in the street outside, dampening and dulling the happy chatter, the drone of the television in the background and Tim giggling in the living room.

There was no doubt about it: their mother had known they would have a happy Christmas here – much better than the Christmas she could have given them – but like so many decisions in her life she had made the wrong choice, yet again.

The snow should be bringing grandeur and enchantment to the festive season, like a Fairy Godmother sprinkling diamond dust over multi-coloured Christmas tree lights and sparkling tinsel. The distinctive smell in the air – of wood smoke and burning coal absorbed in each and every flake from the chimneys of happy households – should have infused her with joy and excitement. It should have been a miracle, because everyone knew snow at Christmas-time was a miracle.

But the snow was not a miracle. Not this year. Not when tomorrow, Christmas would be over and the metamorphosis of Tim would be complete. Somehow, over the space of just two days, Tim had pulled all the confidence and sense of self-worth out of her and transferred it into himself, leaving her feeling empty, quiet and tearful.

From the moment their mother had walked away from them on Sunday, they had begun to be pulled apart, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle spilt into the innocent optimism of a child and the quiet pessimistic worries of an adult, because that was now what she must become. On some primal level, she knew she had always been more than a sister to Tim, but now their mother had left them at what should have been a time of family togetherness, she knew that no matter what the future held, she and Tim would never be the same again.

The arrival of the snow completed the change. It had smothered their past, covering and imprisoning reality. It had muffled the harshness of poverty, hunger, cold and fear, blurring the distinction between the time that had gone and the time that was to come. Everything was now fresh, clean and sterile, but it was also uncertain – their future illuminated from below; their world turned upside down by light reversed. But Lydia knew the snow would eventually melt, and when it did it would reveal a vicious underworld of truth for her brother, forcing him to grow up when he was still a child.

Tim burst into the front room, his cheeks glowing. ‘It’s getting deeper, Lydia. Isn’t it exciting? It’s so white! Uncle George says that when we go to Aunt Daisy’s tomorrow, she will let us have a snowball fight, so you’d better ask if you can borrow a pair of gloves.’

Lydia smiled at her brother, determined to overcome the gloominess that had engulfed her. It was so good to see him confident, talkative and happy for once.

It was almost dark now. She stood up and pulled back the curtain so she could see just how deep the snow was. Just for a while, she allowed it to blank out her worries and fears for the future.

Snow is like cotton wool for a troubled mind, she thought as she walked out of the room to join the rest of the family. She made a bargain with herself. While the snow is on the ground I won’t let myself worry about what is going to happen to us.


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