Writing project ideas sometimes come from the most ridiculous sources. Years ago while reading aloud to my children in the Madeline series of books by Ludwig Bemelmans, I encountered the phrase "she loved winter, snow, and ice...."
There's an arresting thought. You don't often find, in life or books, people who love winter. By late February, say, people are sick of it, especially in a year like this when the snow has fallen thick and fast -- what a cliche -- and the days have been gray and gray and more gray, and the trees have looked dead for four months and the cold and the ice underfoot and the tiresome dangerous driving conditions just go on and on. The season does occupy, or seems to, such an inordinately large part of the year. To which brilliant observation the clever reader replies "Well, duh!" But wait, I have a point: what a pity to hate half the year, if only there were some way we could train ourselves not to.
I suppose the most straightforward way to do it would be to develop, or be born with, a love for winter sports. Imagine speaking on Madeline's behalf: "She loved skiing, and ice fishing, and coming in to the fireside for hot chocolate and sandwiches afterward...." But even people who love winter sports can't do them all the time, and anyway, does the love for the sport translate into a love for the weather and the season, all the time? And what about the rest of us, who aren't interested in athletics but don't want to hate half the year?
When I settled into some research on this topic -- researching winter, no kidding -- I see by my old notes that I found myself starting out by exploring ancient writers to learn what they thought winter was. Why did it occur, -- did they wonder? And I wanted to know what farm work people did during the season, how they survived, what they ate, what holidays they enjoyed. It seems Herodotus thought winter came because the cold north winds blew the sun far down south in the sky. "During winter," he wrote, "the sun is driven out of his course by storms toward the upper parts of Libya" (The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1954). And, centuries later, Tacitus claimed that the barbarian German tribes "had only winter, spring and summer" because they produced only one crop. They did not "know" autumn because they did no particular autumn work in orchard or garden (the Agricola and the Germania, translated by Harold Mattingly, 1948). Isn't it funny to think of the seasons as abstractions that people haven't always known alike.
I envisioned carrying on with this, arranging chapters and topics and someday holding a delightful little work of belles lettres in my hand, Learning to Love Winter. It would make no pretensions to scholarly depth or world importance but would still be unique, entertaining, and who knows? possibly even help a few quirky readers to not hate half the year.
Ah, but how, how does one go about such a project as efficiently as possible? Although writing shop talk is dull, let me indulge myself just for a moment. Every writer faces the three-pronged problem, a sort of vicious triangle of opportunity costs: what shall I do today? Shall I research more, write more, or query editors more? Good research gives you a good case to present to an editor. Stopping research to turn to writing gets the actual job done. Querying editors lets you know whether or not there may be the slightest chance whatsoever for your project to be remotely worth all those opportunity costs. If they all say no, or if you can be almost certain that they will, do you pursue your project anyway, because you are such an artiste?
And how do you answer the question that undergraduates are told to grapple with in their writing classes? -- "So what?" Of course that's a good and challenging question. But I've always liked information for its own sake, too -- show me to the Trivial Pursuit board, and stand back -- an attitude which seems to be frowned upon now. Now academics and everybody want information that is actionable, that tells the reader why he needs to know this. I doff my cap to those who can always write actionable things, but I should think, often times, that is merely the icing on the writing-cake. Why do you need to learn to love winter? Well, really, I -- . And can I make you do it?
I don't know. But if neither is possible, is the whole thing therefore better left undone?