There is an excited buzz at this time of year. Everyone on Twitter has changed their name to something spooky because Halloween has its own version of Advent now, NaNoWriMo is on its way, and Christmas is just around the corner.
I don’t write blunt how-to posts. The idea here is to get you thinking in pictures and emotions and senses. It’s not about quick tips; it’s about always being immersed in the world around us and converting our experience into words on a page. All photos in this post come from Pixabay.
Seeing like a photographer
I was a photographer once. Before digital photography was a thing, people made more effort to get the composition right “in camera.” Now, we have cropping tools, and that can make us lazy. It means we’re not taking the time to frame things in the most aesthetically pleasing ways because we can just hack it about later. It means our eyes are untraining themselves because we can just point and click. This is a shitty way to take photos.
Likewise, describing every last element of a scene in microscopic detail, with no effort to create emotional context or avoid the generic, is a shitty way to write. Detail is important, but every detail? Nope.
So, when I say seeing like a photographer, what I mean is this: taking note of the shapes that make up your scene, the textural contrasts, the light and shadow, flow and movement, the depth of colour, the composition, the tonal shift that occurs when a landscape fades away at the horizon. But also this: dew on grass, raindrops on a window, reflections in puddles, steam curling off a coffee cup, swirling maple seed pods. Panning out and zooming in.
Both the bigger picture and the details can set the tone and create the right atmosphere for the characters in our stories.
It’s how water droplets cling to the underside of a rain-drenched apple. It evokes feelings of heaviness, of being weighed down.
It’s how golden fingers of light paint hazy stripes on the forest floor. This gives me a nostalgic and hopeful feeling.
It’s how conkers look like glossy, mahogany treasures hiding in the shell of an upturned, spiky beast. It feels like a secret.
It’s how back-lit maple seed pods look like errant moth wings. It’s delicate and fleeting.
It’s how leaves overlap and paint shadows on each other. It’s how their serrated edges look soft in the light. I can imagine the movement here, like hands waving goodbye, but it’s more bittersweet and doesn’t feel like a permanent separation, just an inevitable one.
FYI, the effect in the background of all the close up shots I’ve used here is created by using a shallow depth of field against a strong light source. It’s commonly used in nighttime shots with city backgrounds, or wintery scenes with Christmas lights or glowing fires. The effect is called bokeh.
Haiku are masterful portraits of the impermanent. They paint pictures with way less than a thousand words. Using images to think like a haiku writer is a great way of finding impactful words and phrases that have all of the feels and none of the unnecessary flesh. FYI, not all flesh is unnecessary, and I’m not suggesting anybody write prose like haiku. This is about thinking in punches. Metaphors can deliver a mean punch.
Using the seasons as metaphors for emotional or physical transitions isn’t new, but it is universal. Maybe your kids have left home, and all you’ve got to look forward to is winter, i.e. death. Sounds fun, right? No, I’m not crying about my daughter who just left for uni, you are.
Look at this tragic empty nest. It did its job, cradled the babies, kept the wind out. I mean, we all got poked in the eyes a few times and weathered our share of storms, but our memories remain. It smells different now, it’s quieter. I’m not crying, Jan, I’m chopping onions.
Autumn can be seen as the death of summer, of fruitfulness, and the promise of cold to come.
But about that daughter of mine. She’s crying into her cider for entirely different reasons. For young people, the excitement/hell of a new school year looms. For some, it might mean independence, leaving home for university, a new life away from the scrutiny of parents. Maybe they’re in a new town, feeling a little lost, but wrapped up in the excitement of meeting new people and learning new things.
Another thing about my daughter: one day, she’ll be where I am, looking back at her uni days, and it will all look like summer. Because it is.
Moving on to symbolism and metaphor that won’t make me reach for the rum. Consider the spider. They care not for the strongest foundation, because they know everything is ephemeral. Laced between twiggy stems, with dewdrop beads sparkling in the fuzzy golden glow of morning, the web shivers. The spider looks at the brick built monstrosity next door, then back at their own web and thinks, beat that, you human bastards.
Memory Lane: tapping into the emotions of significant cultural events
I live in England, where Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night are celebrated a week apart. These are exciting events in the dark, with bonfires and fireworks and trick or treating. They are warm, cosy events despite our clouded breath. Everybody huddles and oohs and aahs at the lightshow in the sky. The movies start on the Christmas Channel, and the build up begins. After Halloween, shops play Christmas songs for two months straight. That’s what autumn is to me: Halloween, bonfires and Christmas songs. And because I’m a Brit, I must complain about all these things.
These events are ripe with childhood memories.
These are some things I remember about Guy Fawkes Night. Dropping my tin-foiled jacket potato into the campfire because I was terrified of burning myself, so I held the skewer out like I was fencing. Sitting on my dad’s shoulders for a better view of the fire. The singed fur smell when a stray ember landed on a woman’s coat, and the way she shrieked like a horny fox. The school firework display that I assumed all schools had until I moved an hour away from London, and it felt like a different planet. Having freezing fingers despite wearing gloves because we had to get to the display early for a good view. Of. The. Sky.
Making a Guy for the fire (because apparently burning effigies of Catholics is a thing we’re still doing) and being absolutely clueless about the specifics of the political context, despite being force-fed this story every year at school for 10 years straight.
At Halloween. Being a ghost every year because my mum had abysmal sewing skills but plenty of coupons for discount sheets, apparently. Making skull and crossbone cookies with my dad after seeing them in an Addams Family art book. The time my brother thought the green jelly was full of real eyeballs and cried like the world had ended. Carving a pumpkin so badly, its face collapsed, and I cried like the world had ended.
More recently, I’ve watched my own kids experience autumn. Bundling up in scarves and wellies to kick through the leaves all the way up the road to the park to watch squirrels and hunt pinecones. Standing in the supermarket trolley singing Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade like nobody around them had ears. Becoming too old for trick or treating, but choosing sweets for when kids knock on our door. Credit where it’s due: my daughter loved getting dressed up and handing out the stash at the door, but my son doesn’t give a crap for such things and will likely hand out dried banana chips or raisins now that his sister is at uni. He’s evil that way.
Snuggling with my daughter, guzzling buckets of hot chocolate and drowned marshmallows while we watch rom coms on the Christmas Channel. Oh, for the love of schmaltz. All those fuzzy feelings that accompany strong memories do soft, but sometimes sharp things to our bodies. Just thinking about those things can be enough to trigger the feels. Use them.
Personify the features of the season
Almost anything can be assigned human qualities and features. At this time of year, the world is alive with sound and movement. The weather makes personification easy. The wind alone can howl, scream, whisper and wail. Trees can bend and sway like a dancer. Leaves can skip and twirl like carefree children. Everything is in motion in the autumn.
The examples below are a mix of symbolism, similes and metaphors. They’re all from my books.
The wind rattled the windows like an impatient burglar.
Above us, the leaves clapped in the rain like phantom applause in a ghoulish, green theatre.
The sun shone through the regiment of topiary trees overlooking the lake, exposing their spines through the sparse leaves draped over their winter-ready bones.
Faces bloomed in the fire-crackled paint, their screams unheard.
The leaf flattened itself on the wet pavement like it had given up mid-tantrum.
The ivy scaled the walls and breached what was left of the roof. That was where its plan ended. It hung limply from the rafters like an abandoned trapeze artist.
Here is a photo of cute thistles with purplish punkish hair. They look like they’re leaning around a corner to wave at us. Or they could be cabaret dancers with feathery headdresses, swinging around a pole. Either way, they’re bloody charming, and I’d definitely make friends with them if they weren’t thistles.
Pinterest is full of images you can practise these ideas with.
Use all your senses
This follows on from everything above. I don’t want to go overboard with sensory stuff because it’s my personal rabbit hole, and this post is already getting long. I’ll stick to some basic autumn ideas.
Leaves turning amazing colours from acidic yellow to deep brown, pinecones, conkers and acorns falling. Blackberry picking in the hedgerows. Daddy Long-legs clinging to the door when you’re trying to get your key in the lock. (Why, you leggy bastards, why?) Birds abandoning their nests as the leaves grow sparse. Birds flocking. Shorter days, skies darkening earlier. Headlights in the fog. Fields of pumpkins. Meandering mists and swirling fogs. Heavy rains, umbrellas turned inside out. Fogged up windows and condensation. Dislodged roof tiles, random bits of chimney on the ground and felled trees after a storm. Busy squirrels. Firework displays. Bonfires blazing in the dark. Blue fingers, red noses and rosy cheeks. Fogged up glasses. Kids playing in the leaves.
The leaves below look incredible. From dark spinach green to beetroot to rhubarb and every colour of melon flesh. Autumn leaves are not just brown.
One of the most startling sounds as we edge towards winter is the big silence where birdsong used to be. Howling winds lifting the loft hatch and rattling the boiler like it’s got a belly full of ghosts. Shrieking foxes, rutting deer, snuffling hedgehogs and other small creatures shuffling through the leaves. Branches scratching across windows. Crunching leaves. Popping fireworks. Crackling fires. Christmas songs in the shops. Me randomly reciting lines from V for Vendetta.
Depending where you are, the smell of autumn will be different. It smells of dirt and mushrooms in the woods, but has a frosty, musty smell in town. Wood smoke, bonfires, hearty food smells. That warm dusty smell when you first put the heating on after a long summer. Petrichor—the earthy scent of rain. Cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and fudge.
Dark fruits. Warm crumbly puddings and pies with custard. Stews and soups. Warming, hearty, filling foods. Darker beers and stouts. Red wine instead of white. Coffee instead of tea—I mean, not for me, but for people who love coffee and aren’t weak for tea. Rum, spiced with vanilla and nutmeg. Pumpkin pie. Hot chocolate and marshmallows.
Sunlight on you face feels different with the accompanying chill. Crunching leaves underfoot. Muscles warming up in the cold. Harsh breathing as cold air burns your lungs. Goosebumps, getting cold the minute you’re out the shower. Warm fires. Cold mornings at the bus stop. Sliding into a cold car seat and shivering until you can get the heating going. Sideways rain making your front wet and leaving your back bone dry. Clothes soaked to your skin. Rain-logged cardigan weighing two stone more than it should. Layering knitwear. The snug feeling of woolly socks, fluffy pyjamas, scarves, hats and gloves. Numb fingers, runny nose, chilled cheeks. Gooey marshmallows sticking to your fingers.
I’ve collected a bunch of images on Pinterest that have strong autumnal feels. Immerse yourself in the photos, absorb the scents and flavours and sounds, feel the scenery move around you, watch the colours change. Flood your pages.