Liza Ketchum recently sent me a funny comparison of how Minnesotans and other folks react to the cold. According to this list, at 65 degrees (above zero) Arizonans turn on the heat while Minnesotans plant their gardens. At 20 degrees (still above zero) people in Miami all die, and Minnesotans close the windows. The list continues down to 50 below zero, when hell freezes over and Minnesotans start school two hours late.
It’s true that at temperatures well below zero, things change. Snow squeaks underfoot. The inside of your nose freezes a little with each inhalation. Sound carries farther. Pneumatic screen doors closers slam shut. And you betcha the sky will be blue and the sun bright, because clouds help hold in what little warmth we might have. Twenty below in Minnesota is brilliantly bright.
Recently a New Yorker showed me how to talk on a New York subway, faces cheek to cheek, almost touching, talking into each other’s ears while gazing at the people or subway signs beyond—a closeness that might make many Minnesotans uneasy.
Squeaking snow, cheek-to cheek subway conversations–those are specific details of settings. Setting infuses your story: your characters act and react in ways specific to the subtle details of where they live.
It’s above freezing today, so Minnesotans will probably be running around without coats, but I do want to set the record straight on the list Liza sent me, which contains a blatant exaggeration. When hell freezes over Minnesotans start schools one hour late, not two.