First Snowfall

This little red wagon was my husband's when he was little.

We’ve had a few days of wintry weather here in Portland, including a lovely, swirling blizzard-like snowfall Tuesday night.

The next morning, though, we woke up to slush and rain. My husband and I talked about that little-kid feeling of being up late peering through the window at all the flakes coming down. Oh the potential!Β It was so disappointing waking up to puddles and spots of grass reappearing beneath the pristine white. (Hello, you slushy gray reality.)

We were glad, at least, that our daughter woke up in the middle of the night so the three of us could spend a few hushed moments staring out the window and imagining sledding and building snowmen in the morning.

I want to capture that sort of hopeful, first snowfall delight in my historical novel, LOST NOTES, when my protagonist first arrives in New York City in 1853. Despite misfortune, Henri is intoxicated with the possibility of this bustling place and what he can do now that he’s far away from his restrictive family. But my critique group read his arrival, as written in the first draft, as Henri being naive and unafraid and not particularly sympathetic. He should have reacted strongly to the crowds and dirt, they said. He should have been scared, too–all good points about a young man hailing from a sheltered village in France.

I’ve been thinking about all this since our group meeting in November, specifically why I’m so set on Henri having this initial idyllic view of his hometown and then New York. Thinking about the falling snow brings me closer to an answer. I want Henri to set out on his adventure–his quest–full of expectations and hope. I want him to close his eyes at night full of excitement about the next day.

One of his heroic qualities is to make the best of a situation rather than wallowing in what goes wrong. Henri ends up at a brothel in a notorious New York slum, but at least he finds a place that welcomes him. His gratefulness and his sense of honor go a long way in continuing that idyllic view of things for a while longer.

Certainly, as my group pointed out, Henri stays sheltered and naive too long in this first rough draft, especially in an environment where sex and commerce intersect–and where women end up when they have no other options. But in order to get him to become more realistic about the world around him, I needed to understand why he’s so hopeful in the first place. I don’t have an answer, yet, but the snow has gotten me thinking about potential. When Henri sets off for America, he knows anything can happen, and instead of being afraid, he feels liberated. He’s ready to be a hero in his own life. And that’s as good a place to start an adventure as any.

Have you had any epiphanies about your work lately? Or are you stuck trying to solve a particular problem?


About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Plot, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to First Snowfall

  1. What is this mythical thing called snow? Virginia Beach doesn’t see much snow! Our weather has been yo-yoing up and down from in the 60s to the 30s for the past couple of weeks. Mother Nature gets a bit confused here. Haha!

    Right now, I’ve stepped back from my work. I just finished my first draft and have given it to a few people to read. I’ll look at it again at the start of February–and I’ve got that hopeful, naivete that you’re talking about with Henri! XD

    My biggest concerns right now and making sure all of my verb tenses are the same. I’m about 90% sure that my opening needs to be tense-checked. I’m *hoping* with all my might that the rest of it is okay. I hate doing the tense-checking! And of course I’m hoping my jokes and metaphors make sense. That’s always helpful!

    • We don’t usually see much snow here in Oregon, either. It’s always a big deal!

      It’s so fun to be in that stepping away stage of your work–scary and exciting and so full of anticipation. Enjoy the wait, and then the beginning of the revision process! I’m excited for you to get that feedback. It was so helpful for me to get comments from my group in November, although I’m still figuring out how I will respond to certain questions and thoughts. It’s all part of making the book better, so when I get frustrated with a particular scene or issue, I try to remember that!

  2. Emma Burcart says:

    I remember the first time I saw snow! I was five or six and my parents woke me up in the middle of the night to see it. It was an amazing sight, especially the white snow against the dark night. Glorious. Now, as an adult I HATE snow. I can’t stand being cold, and the only thing worse than cold is cold and wet at the same time. I feel a lot like you described Henri. People do start out with an idylic (OMG, can’t spell today) view and then grow into a “realistic” view. I had a similar exepience to Henri. No brothels for me, but I moved from one country to another on an adventure. It took me two years to lose that idylic view and notice the garbage, smog, poverty, and other negetives of the country. And, oh those were two glorious years. Everything was new and beautiful and wonderful, simply because it was different. I’m glad that you are not just taking what others say and running to change it, but looking for the place where your own ideas take you. You will find what you are looking for, eventually.

    • What fun to remember the first time you saw snow, Emma! I grew up with regular winter storms, so I don’t remember my first experience, although there are photos of me on the kitchen floor sticking my hands in a bowl of snow.

      I adore your description of moving to another country and taking a while to see the seedy side of it. As human beings, our capacity for wonder is incredible, and I want to capture that amazement on the page. The idea of Henri being carried away by the newness of New York is a really useful one. He’ll be willing to overlook so much. And yes, while I swear by critique groups and love the information and thoughts that I received from mine, I am still digesting the input and figuring out how to use it while staying true to my conception of Henri and his journey.

  3. Laura, I spent many of joyful night sitting at a window, watching snow, fat flakes reflected against the street lights, the magical promise, the hush that comes over the streets. I have always loved the first snow of each season and it is one of the things I miss the most about home. I think of Henri as a young man dreaming of that magical promise. Not all characters need to become jaded in order to evolve or grow, and the harsh realities are often softened by the person seeing them in their own special way. Love the wagon … hope the next time you get to roll in it, make snow angels, stick out your tongue and remember … like your characters … each single snow flake is a singularly unique design. How we mortals struggle to duplicate the natural wonders of our world πŸ™‚

    • Oh I love that hush! There’s something so magical about that–and knowing that friends and neighbors are also pressing their noses to the windows, watching the snow fall.

      I will have to print this line of yours out: “Not all characters need to become jaded in order to evolve or grow, and the harsh realities are often softened by the person seeing them in their own special way.” That’s so much what I’m trying to do with Henri. I just have to adjust the balance.

      Thanks, as always, for the positivity, Florence!

  4. Dalya Moon says:

    My epiphany: You can pick literary or you can pick genre. If you pick literary, you bring on the pain. If you pick genre, you indulge yourself with what *you* want to see happen in the story, and turn away from the literary advice just a bit.

    • Very true! I’ve had some wonderful literary vs. genre conversations with a fellow writer this year. I definitely still fall on the literary side of things, and probably always will be, because that’s what I love to read, but deciding to write historical fiction has made me think more about genre and how it can free a writer from the do’s and don’ts of literary fiction.

      • “Bring on the pain”? “Do’s and don’ts”?

        That doesn’t sound like much fun. No wonder I write genre (at least I think my stuff is genre, though I admit I never think about it one way or the other πŸ™‚ ).

  5. We just had some snow in NY, too. Almost immediately converted to slush and ice, but it is nice when you first wake up and look out the window.

    Your point about coming to a new place and not seeng the bad stuff right away is very relevant to what I’m working on now, since I’m writing about a teenage girl who is in that exact situation. She’s not even there yet, and she’s already fallen in with some bad companions (and she’s surprising herself by how well she gets along with them πŸ™‚ ). But when she gets there, I have to remember to bring out how different it is from what she knew before.

  6. Caron Reeder says:

    Hi Laura, this might be too much information for a comments section. But here I go anyway… of course I haven’t read your draft but the way you describe him here I feel like I can relate to him. Don’t we all have to be a little niave to leave the comfortable past behind to do something new? I think of when I left for college, got married, had my first child, started a new job, even right now building a startup. All those times I set off with niave optimism so hopeful, so happy, so excited, everything felt new again – and then something would happen and there would be fear, fear of something real or fear something imaginary, or sometimes just fear of the unknown. You give yourself 20 minutes, or an hour, or a day and then you remember why you set out on that path in the first place and that fear gets smaller and smaller. I think that’s how we learn and grow as people. I guess I’m saying maybe he can stay this hopeful optimistic person but with fits of panic too. Then you can stay true to exactly who he is. Just a thought.

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