Emily S. Whitten’s Snow Stories

BlizzardBy the time you read this, we’ll have a much better idea of whether the snow predictions for Winter Storm Juno in the Northeast were accurate, but starting on Sunday with a tweet from the Bowery Boys, I had already started seeing people wondering if this would be a historic blizzard like the Great Blizzard of 1888 (or the apparently lesser-known but just as terrifyingly fascinating Children’s Blizzard of 1888).

The post from the Bowery Boys site (which is worth a read or a click for the pictures alone) stirred my memory – hadn’t I read something else once about the Blizzard of 1888? I didn’t really remember it as its own thing, but something was there. It took me a few minutes of cogitation, but I finally recalled Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck, a children’s or young adult book I read when I was nine or ten, that flip-flops between the story of a modern family who vacations in a historic New York City house and the story of the family that lived in the house before and during the time of the Great Blizzard. It’s a great book for that age group (singled out by Publishers Weekly for its careful historical background), and key events take place during the blizzard. Years after reading it, I can still recall tiny descriptive details about those key scenes, because they are so vividly described and seemed so real.

What I found funny, as I thought about it, was that the book is, as far as I can recall, my only prior encounter with the Blizzard of 1888. Here is one of the biggest snowstorms on record, which killed over 400 people and immobilized New York City for a week, and I only knew it from a fictional children’s book. But then again, it’s really not that odd after all, is it? We learn all the time about real things by reading fictional works, because anyone who’s a writer or even a regular reader knows that “truth is stranger than fiction” is more than a tired old cliché, and that often the things that stick in the mind the most in a good book are the ones that the author has pulled from reality (albeit with tweaks or modifications to fit them to the fictional world).

Often the best work we do is that which we’ve managed to base on something that really happened or some blazingly unique individual who was utterly real. Fiction that has been informed by a wider reality, no matter how otherwise fantastical it may be, is more gripping than the stuff that comes purely out of our own heads – because even the most creative of us can’t imagine the heights and depths to which other humans can rise and sink without observing them, or the potential that each of us has inside without seeing it come to fruition. And even the most creative of us might not be up to imagining a snowstorm that piled snow to the fourth floors of New York City houses, and toppled entire streets-worth of telegraph poles.

These thoughts dovetailed with a conversation I’d been having with a fellow writer, about the little life details that we find which inspire us to create more in-depth characters and worlds, and reminded me in turn of something Terry Pratchett once shared with me during an interview, about a beaded stone bracelet he’d once bought at a convention silent auction, that inspired the scene in Wintersmith (one of my all-time favorite Discworld books) in which Tiffany Aching sees the heart of Summer. It’s a beautiful scene; and it’s these little real things that become the building blocks of the bigger story for writers, and the reason why writers like Pratchett and Neil Gaiman consistently discuss reading non-fiction works (like Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor) when talking about what inspires or helps their writing.

Just like fiction can be a door to a reality we’ve never encountered before, like the Blizzard of 1888, reality is what gives our fiction many of its best moments. As a journalist, I was trained to look for both the facts and the angles of a story I’m reporting – and likewise, as a fiction writer, I can’t help but muse on all the myriad interesting facts and odd story angles that existed in the events of March 11-14, 1888 in New York City alone, and what kind of fictional stories they could inspire (like a story about Augustus Post, who survived the 1888 blizzard and went on to scoff at the 25 inches of snow that came down during a blizzard in 1947. I bet he’d be a fun guy to write about). It’s a little bit mind-boggling, but also comforting, to think of all the material out there – especially when I’m feeling the effects of writer’s block. Because no matter what, there’s always going to be something waiting to inspire; and just like looking for the facts and the angle as a journalist, as a fiction writer looking to create a good story you just have to seek it out.

So off I go, looking for that inspiration, and saying unto all of you in the meantime, stay warm and safe out there, and until next time, Servo Lectio!