Vaughn C. Hardacker here: This July my fourth thriller will be released by Skyhorse Publishing. The novel, WENDIGO, takes place entirely in the north Maine woods during the midwinter months of January and February. As I was writing the novel I soon realized that winter here in Maine’s northernmost county is as instrumental to the novel’s plot as the characters. In fact, the winter weather impacts all of my characters to a greater extent than they do one another.
Anyone who has ever experienced five feet of snow on the ground and more falling along with thirty miles per hour wind (with gusts of fifty miles per hour), minus 30 degree Fahrenheit temperature, and a resulting windchill of minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 73 degrees during the aforementioned gusts) can attest to the impact it has upon them. Normal activity as mundane as taking out the trash can quickly turn into a life and death situation. If you have either lived in or spent time in THE COUNTY any time from December to April you may have experienced these climatic conditions.
“How does this make setting become a character?” The one facet required to make a novel a success is the inter-relationships between the characters. It is easy to see how personal relationships affect people, now consider the extent that the above stated conditions do. Being out in these conditions has an obvious affect on our human characters and the risk of death from hypothermia is easy to see. Being cooped up inside a house or apartment for days on end will inevitably lead to cabin fever, which often culminates in arguments and, in extreme situations, murder. If there is any minor problem with a machine, i.e. a car/truck, a snowmobile, or even an aircraft, it could easily become a major issue. I have spent many a frigid day on my back lying on ice while changing a defective starter on a car. That same starter, in all probability would have functioned in warm weather.
It isn’t hard to understand all of the above. The WENDIGO is the physical manifestation of the most evil of Anisinaubae manitous . . . in short it’s one bad assed creature and a god as well! It’s powers are strongest during the long nights of winter and it is always hungry. In fact the more it grows and the more it grows the hungrier it becomes–it is in a perpetual state of starvation. It has a restricted diet–lets suffice to say the menu could have been used by the Donner Party. The creature itself is horrifying enough, now the setting comes into place–the deep woods in midwinter. Put yourself into this situation: It’s 3:30 P. M. and you have been ice fishing on a remote lake and notice that the sun has set. You gather up your fish tip-ups, tackle, and other paraphernalia. Once you have packed everything into the trailer you have attached to your snowmobile, you settle onto the sled and turn the key–nothing happens. Immediately you realize that you left the ignition in the on position and the battery has been drained. In itself this is enough plot to drive the story, but think about the addition of the sudden appearance of a twenty foot tall, emaciated humanoid creature with teeth like a shark, emitting thunderous roars, and can run faster than any human. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to realize this thing ain’t there to help get your sled going.
All of my books thus far have been set during the summer and early fall, WENDIGO is set during the coldest and darkest time of our year. The warmth of the holidays is behind us and the long tedious days of snow, more snow, yet more snow (in 2007 we got over 200″), and below zero temperatures. If you work in a building and you don’t have a window in your workspace you’ll begin to feel like a mushroom, waking up before the sun, driving to work in the dark, and driving home in the dark. It is not unusual to go five days without ever seeing daylight–don’t even think about the sun as cloudy days are the norm. Truthfully, you don’t like sunny days . . . in January and February a sunny sky means high pressure. High pressure means COLD; on the other hand low pressure usually means SNOW and lots of it.
So how does all this apply to your characters? Winter is a time of short days, as illustrated above, and long cold nights when everything is shrouded in snow and ice. It’s not unusual for the banks alongside the plowed roads to be ten feet or higher–an ideal place for a villain or WENDIGO to lay in wait. The only sounds you hear as you walk along an unlit rural road is the crunch of your heavy boots on the frozen ground and the wind. Snow is blowing from the top of one snowbank to the top of the one opposite and your head and shoulders are covered. The atmosphere is claustrophobic as you feel as if you are walking in an ice tunnel. Suddenly the night is split with a booming voice that sounds like thunder and a twenty foot tall beast bounds over the snowbank and lands ten feet in front of you–did I mention that it smells like grave rot?
Don’t you think that would have an affect on your character?
Very interesting post. I’d say you’ve kicked it up a notch in your new book, from a Maine perspective, on the relationship between setting and character. In fact, it seems as if your setting would immerse any character into an existentialist authenticity or “freedom” from which, paradoxically, there may be no escape.
At least one definition of the existentialist view is that of the the acting, feeling, living human individual whose starting and maybe continuing point is characterized by a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
Hmmm, I didn’t mean to speak about the recent election.
Anyway, that sense is what strikes me in your depiction of the setting. I look forward to reading WENDIGO.
What a painfully vivid description of Maine winter. I lived in Maine for one academic year. The year of all that snow. No kidding–the setting affects the character! I thought I’d died and gone to a hell that had frozen over. I spent the winter applying for jobs in places that had an average daytime winter temperature above forty degrees. There was snow and ice on the ground in April when I left for an interview in Virginia where there were tulips blooming. Phew. No Wendigos here.
Where did you spend the academic year? Usually when people use that expression they are either teachers or instructors–are you either?
I’m glad that you found the description vivid–but sorry it was painful.