Your goose is cooked, the cookies are burning, and none of your presents are ready. There’s a special kind of chaos to the holiday season, and it deeply affects writers. However, even if you’re too busy to work on your WIP during the holiday season, the chaos has a lot to offer your craft.
The devil is in the details, but so is the hook. Vivid worlds grow from the tiniest seeds. You’ve probably already learned this trick, whether you realize it or not.
Consider how you tell someone about your family’s traditions. When you want to share the things that make your family special, you hone in on one or two unique and impactful details. No one starts describing their family’s holiday by stating the obvious: “We have a tree in the living room. We put lights on it. Everyone gives each other presents.”
Instead, you reveal your mom makes the best hot chocolate because she melts actual chocolate in a saucepan with whole milk and a couple secret spices you’re forbidden to share. Maybe you bake a trinket in a breakfast cake and whoever gets it in their piece opens presents first. Do you have an especially ugly angel on your tree? Can you tell which gifts come from your favorite uncle because he just staples everything in paper sacks? These details invite readers into a story, whether you’re telling a coworker or the readers of your book.
Memories are tangled up in the senses. Apart from the basics – like pine and roasting turkey – what smells remind you of Christmas? What do you touch and feel? Are there sounds that transport you to December, no matter what time of year it is?
Use the holidays to note how your senses work together to make memories. You smell your grandma’s gingerbread, bask in the warmth of an open oven, and listen to your mother quietly swearing as she runs cool water over a small burn.
The floor hurts your tailbone, and you can’t focus on anything else, because your cousins are taking half of forever to finish ripping through their gifts. Something – somewhere – is burning, but no one can say what or where.
Writing scenes and descriptions that engage all of the reader’s senses is a tricky feat great writers master over time. The holiday season is a great opportunity to practice. Try conjuring a scene with a single sentence. See how many senses you can evoke in that one line.
What Does and Doesn’t Need Explanation
Don’t tell what the audience already knows. If you’re writing about popular holidays, that goes double. If someone told you a story about their family that just happened to be at Christmas, you could probably pick up on one or two small details that revealed the setting. Your friend wouldn’t need to stop, tell you about the birth of Jesus, the blend of pagan and Christian traditions, or the change of the holiday’s date as a lead up to their tale. If you find yourself doing this in fiction – particularly in an original world – check yourself. You don’t have to give the full back story. Even Tolkien, the master of descriptive info-dumps that somehow remain interesting, did not include everything he could have. There are literal books of backstory and asides he chose not to include. If he can do it, so can you.
What is the most vivid holiday memory you remember? Is it good or bad? What details tell the reader or listener how to feel about it? You don’t have to write a novel this month, but it’s a great time for a little practice.