“It Was a Dark and Stormy Night.” Of course it was.

Winter View - Sunset Point“Oh, winter,
We are falling,
We are hiding,
We are hibernating.

In the depths of the wake,
In the depths of the dark,

In the depths
of our dreams,
And so it seems,
That winter comforts me.~ Susie Suh (Winter)

Gimme Shelter: There’s snow in the forecast. It was sunny when I started this post,  but the skies grow darker. I’m glad. As a writer I’ve always loved winter weather. Any kind of inclement weather, really. I do my best writing when the weather is stormy or harsh—anything but sunny and warm.

My friend Rhiann Wynn-Nolet wrote a wonderful post about how she is inspired by winter, with some really lovely photos. Go take a look at it, here. In it, she writes beautifully and poetically about the stillness, the beauty, and the clarity of winter. I heartily agree.

There is a coziness about winter, and it’s not just the coziness of wearing warm socks (I know some of you were waiting for the sock reference, so I thought I’d get it out of the way). Stormy weather makes me appreciate the comforts of my little cottage. It’s the perfect weather for cuddling by the fire with a book. They always talk about summer being ideal for reading, but I’ve always done more reading in winter. And I think that this fondness for winter reading is part of my preference for writing in winter.

But for me there’s something deeper.

Winter in HazelhurstA winter’s day,
In a deep and dark December,
I am alone.

Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock,
I am an island.”
~ Paul Simon (I Am a Rock)

Rock + Island = Fortress: There is solitude in winter. There is reflection, yes, and silence. In the depths of winter, here in our little resort town, I am alone in the world. Alone with my thoughts, my emotions, my dreams. I am alone with my characters—my stories. Splendid isolation, as Warren Zevon aptly calls it.

During my daily walks there is only the muffled crunch of boots on snow, the wind through the firs overhead. Sequestered in my cozy office—my window on a frosty forest—there is no human voice, no beach-going tourists passing my window, beckoning my attention. Here in my fortress of seclusion, I am more easily transported into the world of story.

Carry on, carry on, carry on,
Our silver horn it leads the way
Banners of gold shine
In the cold, in the cold,
in the cold,
Footprints of snow, we’re b
lind from the road.
~Anthony Gonzalez (M83- Intro)

Winter Is Coming! I’m sure it’s no coincidence that many of the scenes in my four completed manuscripts are set in inclement weather. And I’m not alone. Many of my favorite Winter is coming-Game of throneshistorical fantasy stories rely on winter weather settings to create a mystique or a mood. Most notably, the ever impending multi-year long winter of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, much ballyhooed by the Starks, who made its coming their family motto. Winter also features prominently in the series I’m reading now: The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb.

There is something special about an impending storm—a potent cocktail of edgy anticipation and hunkering snugness. My characters endure swirling snow, bone-chilling wind, and stinging rain. My stormy mood is often imposed upon their world, creating a beautiful melancholia—the perfect backdrop for heightened conflict and emotional perseverance. Reading the trials of a favorite character in an epic tale is like experiencing the severity of the season through a frosty window pane, huddled under a throw in your favorite armchair.

My window on a snowy world.Are you an inclement weather reader or writer? Or perhaps neither—“just bring me my flip-flops and may palm trees swaying in a balmy breeze be the worst of my winter.” Either way, wishing you the season’s best!

The Grittiness Factor

gritty [ˈgrɪtɪ] adj -tier, -tiest

1. courageous; hardy; resolute

2. of, like, or containing grit

The definition of the word gritty is pretty straightforward. But for the sake of this post, let me also share one of The Urban Dictionary’s definitions. It’s perhaps more fitting for this post, sarcasm and all:

Gritty—a type of realism, usually invoked by films and documentary (author’s note:and books!). Strangely enough, “gritty realism” is only perceptible to media critics and the term is hardly ever used by anyone else. In fact, no one but a media critic would ever use the term. Example: “The gritty realism of this documentary is in stark contrast to his other work.”

For today’s purposes, I’d prefer to think of myself more as a fantasy fan and an interested observer than an actual critic. I was prompted to the topic by reading, and loving, Scourge of the Betrayer, by Jeff Salyards. I’ve gotten to know Jeff a little through facebook and his blog posts, and found him to be clever, funny, and supportive. He seems like a guy I’d enjoy throwing back a few beers with, maybe whilst taking in a Chicago sporting event. You know, a real guy’s guy. I’m sure I’d get over my writerly envy of his masterful action sequences and  authentic-and-yet-archaic dialog by the bottom of the first round or the end of the first sporting quarter, whichever came first.

Gritty Aspirations: There has been a move in historical fantasy toward (for lack of a better word) grittiness. Before I started writing, I enjoyed gritty historical fiction from authors like Steven Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell, and I also read quite a bit of war-related nonfiction. I aspired to bringing a realistic, non-glorified warrior ethos to my favorite genre of epic fantasy.

It may seem strange, but it wasn’t until after I started writing that I became aware of writers like George RR Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Glen Cook. And reading these guys made me realized I was hopelessly outmatched.

True Grit: I’m not just talking about a realistic portrayal of battle or violence, though that’s a part of it. Much of the Gritty Movement in historical fantasy has to do with the deconstruction of the genre’s moralistic trope, the simplistic delineation of good versus evil. Characters often have less than pure intentions and motivations. There are often serious and unexpected consequences for actions taken, even if they are taken with the best of intentions. In some cases, with some characters, the worldview digresses darn near to nihilism.

Shades of Gray: I was shooting for this kind of complexity in my own work. And to some degree, I think I’ve achieved it. The world I created is not morally or ethically black and white. Each of my characters believes he is acting for the greater good, even when they are aware their actions may not be considered virtuous. Often there is self-deluding justification involved, but I’m hoping the characters and actions readers might find despicable will also be plausible and maybe even relatable, rather than just evil. And I believe I’ve created real consequences as well. When swords swing and arrows fly, people bleed and, in some cases, die. There is pain and grief and vengefulness and jealousy.

And yet, when my work hits the market, I’m pretty sure few will use the g-word to describe it.

I’m a fan! As I said, the reader in me loves the Gritty Movement. As is the case in Scourge of the Betrayer, Gritty Movement characters are not always self-serving nihilists. They are sometimes motivated by tarnished versions of honor and friendship, often viewed from a jaded perspective. I enjoy seeing these noble glimmers emerging from the gritty characters in my fantasy reading.

Romantic Sentimentalist: My enjoyment of Jeff’s book led to my examination of what keeps my work from achieving true grit. I decided it comes down to a certain kind of sentimentalism. I guess my own romantic notions have made their way onto the page. In spite of the occasional moral ambiguity of their means, my characters are often motivated by idealistic goals. I left much of the tarnish off of their sense of honor. Worse yet, my characters are often motivated by romantic love (something I’ve very rarely seen in the Gritty Movement).

And I’ve decided I’m okay with it. I can incorporate the elements of gritty that enhance my style, and just be a fan of those who’ve mastered true grit, like Mr. Salyards and company.

What about you? Have you actually used the word gritty to describe a book or a movie? Do you like or dislike grittiness, or just accept it as it comes if it works? Can grittiness and romantic sentiment work side by side?