Writer’s Notebook: Wheel-of-Seasons Entries To Help You Set Scenes + Create Atmosphere
January 2, 2019
Early civilisations were completely at the mercy of nature. Even when they gained some power over their destinies by laying claim to a plot of land and committing to agriculture, they were at her mercy.
These agricultural societies were master observers of nature, the seasons, the weather, the sun, anything that changed and affected their lives. They looked for clues to tell them when to plough, when to sow, and when to harvest.
Tools of the Trade
Observation is as important to writers as it was to those early farmers. We, too, depend on our observations of the world around us for the fruits that we hope will result from our labour.
The writer’s most important tool for observation is their notebook. To make the most of your notebook, you have to carry it around with you not only to have it available at all times but also because having it at hand makes you observe the world more keenly. You’re paying attention to the world more closely than you otherwise would; listening to conversations, capturing ideas before they vanish, and taking note of details. You’re building up a treasure trove of material to draw from.
“The point is, listen like a thief; keep a journal and enter into it what you steal from the world; read it over now and then, maybe every night; see what it makes of you; see what you can make of it.”
Mark Tredinnick, Writing Well
Carrying your notebook around with you, you note your day to day observations, the daily cycles of life or fleeting moments. But, there are other cycles and moments to mark that don’t occur on a daily basis. Instead, they occur seasonally or annually and are equally valuable material for our writing. But how can we capture them? How to keep track of them?
The Wheel of Seasons
I learned about the wheel of seasons scrolling through Pinterest. I’ve been thinking a lot about the seasons lately: how we are affected by them and how we can make the most of them for our creative projects (a topic for another post).
The wheel of seasons has eight spokes marking different points in the year. Four well-known points which track the sun and it’s light as the year progresses; the Summer and Winter Solstices and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes.
There are four more cross-quarter points which mark the beginning of each season (more or less) which were important to those early farmers. The cross-quarter points in the year marked the times to begin or end different processes involved in an agriculture-based way of life: the times to plough, sow, and harvest. We still celebrate two of those cross-quarter festivals today; Halloween and May Day, although their significance and meaning have been transformed.
Setting Scenes + Creating Atmosphere
Today, most of us are not involved in the direct production of the food we eat, and we have technology that allows us to be less dependent on nature. We have no need to keep track of the lengths of the days, the rain, the temperature, or when to expect the first frost. Our lives are not impacted by the clues that nature offers us in the migration of the birds, the activity of the animals, or the blooming of different flowers.
They are, however, beautiful scene setters. They give us an awesome sense of place. Because we are not immune to the marvel of nature, our writing can only benefit from the inclusion of these observations.
“A light exists in spring Not present on the year At any other period. When March is scarcely here
A color stands abroad On solitary hills That science cannot overtake, But human nature feels.
It waits upon the lawn; It shows the furthest tree Upon the furthest slope we know; It almost speaks to me.
Then, as horizons step, Or noons report away, Without the formula of sound, It passes, and we stay:
A quality of loss Affecting our content, As trade had suddenly encroached Upon a sacrament.”
Emily Dickinson’s beautiful poem about Spring light was undoubtedly informed by her observations of it in comparison with the other seasons. We live life very much caught up in the day-to-day runnings of it, but it’s the seasons of our lives compared with others that offer us insight and wisdom.
“I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.”
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River
Some of my favourite memories of the places I’ve lived have been seasonal.
The sound of Christmas beetles hitting window panes and scurrying on the wooden floor of my boarding school’s study hall was a sign that the December Summer holidays were near; the appearance of noisy, migratory Egyptian geese was another indicator of Summer in Cape Town; the clouds of winged termites emerging from absolutely everywhere in Maputo let us know that the Summer rains were upon us; and in Porto, the atmospheric Sao Joao festival, where people gather to eat roasted sardines, hit each other on the head with soft plastic hammers, and watch fireworks at midnight, heralds midsummer.
All these details, which we quite possibly take for granted, are fantastic for readers who aren’t accustomed to them. They give a wonderful sense of place, show us what is different or similar about places, and create atmosphere.
You might be surprised by what you discover about yourself and the world around you by including wheel-of-seasons entries in your notebook or journal. Here’s some inspiration to get you started and what to look for:
Kick off creatively and draw your own wheel of seasons. You can go have a look at some beautiful examples on Pinterest for inspiration. In your notebook or journal make note of the changes you notice month to month, season to season, and year to year.
Observe the comings and goings of the birds in your area, do they migrate or do they remain all year long?
Watch for interesting animal activity and sounds.
Note the trees and flowers around you. When do they flower, bear fruit, or lose their leaves? Are there any particular fragrances in the air at different times of the year?
What’s the weather like? What’s the nature of the rain and wind at different times of the year? Do you notice seasonal mist, fog, or cloud formations?
Pay attention to the quality of the light and darkness at different times of the year. How are you affected by the changes?
What’s happening in the sky? Watch the moon and the stars, what constellations do you see and what is affected by the moon and how?
And don’t forget the people. What are people up to? What seasonal or annual customs and traditions do people participate in? What are they wearing and eating?
Remember to have fun with it. Your notebook or journal is your personal place to express, in any way you choose, what you see around you. There are no rules. Get creative with it; include sketches, snippets of poetry, anything that helps paint a more colourful and detailed picture of what you observe and feel. It’s about mood. You’re capturing details that you may get to include in your writing to help set a scene or create atmosphere, so anything that helps you conjure a mood would be a great inclusion.
In this post, Austin Kleon shares three things to include for every new observation you make when nature journaling, which is especially important for writers and artists keeping track of seasonal observations.
Wheel-of-seasons entries invite you to develop observation skills over a longer period of time. It’s an opportunity to collect details – little gems – to give your writing that extra bling that makes it unique and memorable.
It’s a long-term creative project that can help you foster a deeper connection with the world around you.
It’ll make an observer of you, and what are writers if not great observers of life.
References + Further Reading
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