Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner
Writing Holiday Stories: Tricks (and Treats)
Who doesn't love to read chilling tales at Halloween that embed inside readers deeply enough for them to bite their nails, shiver, or even scream out loud?
Holiday stories have always been popular. Scrooge and those life-altering ghosts of goodwill in A Christmas Carol have been giving readers pause for reflection in the 179 years since it was first published; An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving by Louisa May Alcott is all about family and gathering together grateful hearts; Emma, with its matchmaking namesake, is an unexpected tale custom-made for Valentine's Day; not to mention Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman thundering through the chill autumn countryside in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Whole hosts of fiction give us reading adventures that embody the spirit of the holidays they're set around. But what distinguishes a holiday story from all others? In this article, we'll talk about three tricks writers can use to craft authentic holiday fiction that will give readers a treat year in and year out.
1 1) Prominently Feature the Holiday Itself
Just because there's a romance alluded to somewhere in the story doesn't necessarily mean it's a Valentine's Day story any more than any old garden variety of frightening tale is specifically a Halloween one. Before embarking on a specific type of holiday story, write down what defines the particular festivity you're writing about and what you want to highlight in your unique take on it. While countless stories have become holiday favorites unintentionally, if you want to write something that could become seasonally beloved, starting with a plan is wise. Be specific about you want to accomplish using this season in your story elements because in some ways you're actually making the holiday a character that needs to be developed fully and consistently throughout the tale. The more preparation you do in advance, the more your readers will exult in how you've captured the essence of the holiday.
Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has become an annual All Hallows' favorite since it was first published in 1820, although the author may not have specifically intended it to become such a Halloween haunt. Based on a 1790 Dutch settlement, the secluded glen of Sleepy Holly depicts a quaint, autumnal countryside in which the community is fascinated by tales of the supernatural. His vivid descriptions are the driving force behind this treasured yuletide yarn:
"From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by the name of Sleepy Hollow, and its rustic lads are called the Sleepy Hollow Boys throughout all the neighboring country. A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere... Certain it is, the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie. They are given to all kinds of marvellous beliefs; are subject to trances and visions; and frequently see strange sights, and hear music and voices in the air. The whole neighborhood abounds with local tales, haunted spots, and twilight superstitions: stars shoot and meteors glare oftener across the valley than in any other part of the country, and the nightmare, with her whole nine fold, seems to make it the favorite scene of her gambols...
"On all sides he beheld vast store of apples; some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees; some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market; others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press. Farther on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverts, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty-pudding; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun..."
2) Set the Mood for a Seasonal Tale
The second thing that distinguishes any holiday story is mood (or tone). Mood is a carefully constructed means of building layers of tension and suspense, and the tone almost always fits the genre. Romance stories capture the tender feelings of swoon-worthy, appealing main characters that readers will root through obstacles to see share a happily ever after. Mystery stories tend to have an escalating sense of drama and the certainty that something is just not right; only by unraveling the confounding threads and clues can peace and order once again prevail. Gothic leans toward a suffocating feel of atmospheric foreboding. Horror should have the hairs at the back of your neck standing on end and you have to fight the constant need to look back over your shoulder to see if there's something unnatural lurking there.
In the same way, Christmas stories tend to be merry, festive, nostalgic, filled with hope and cheer and benevolence. Valentine's Day stories are frequently romantic, passionate, and rife with promise for the future. Easter tales usually personify grace, redemption, and joy. Thanksgiving yarns are overflowing with the gathering of loved ones, images of feasts and bounty, the good things to be grateful for in our otherwise mundane lives. Each holiday has evocative sentiments that tend to be universal.
Sensory descriptions that evoke the individual seasons should be used in holiday stories at their most potent times. Vivid descriptions bring the reader directly into this kind of story. Using these, you give something tangible in your vision. Your reader moves and uses his senses right along with your characters. The most effective way to capture mood is by using all the senses, as Washington Irving did so effectively in his Gothic tale that contains the epitome of all things spooky:
"It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavyhearted and crest-fallen, pursued his travel homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him, the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watch-dog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farm-house away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bull-frog, from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably, and turning suddenly in his bed."
3) Immerse the Story in the Setting
Setting is a critical foundation to immersing characters in a world that's directly tied to the holiday you're depicting in the story. In A Writer’s Guide to Active Setting: How to Enhance Your Fiction With More Descriptive, Dynamic Settings, Mary Buckham says, "Setting can create the world of your story, show characterization, add conflict, slow or speed up your pacing, add or decrease tension, relate a character's backstory, thread in emotion, and more… Setting can add so much to your story world or it can add nothing." If you're writing a Christmas story, for example, you're literally at the mercy of your imagination when it comes to crafting prose that floods the senses with Christmas songs, scents, tastes, sights, sensations, and the sheer multitude and range of emotions that can accompany each.
In fiction, settings should be less about objective reality (impersonal) and all about subjective experience (highly personal), especially when you're writing a holiday-specific story. Settings may provide the backdrop for festivity events to unfold, but they do much more than that by creating the context of each scene. Settings can suggest conflicts, personality, memories, goals, and motivations. The connotations are endless. What does the setting reveal about the character’s state of mind, preferences, desires this holiday season? What does the setting reveal about relationships? What in the setting means the most to the main character and/or brings the most regrets? What internal conflicts and motivations can be drawn to describe holidays more tangibly as a result? Are there ways in which the current holiday setting has been influenced by something that happened in the past, and what associations can be made with past events to deepen the present? How can this setting be used to establish the foundation for escalating conflict and suspense in the course of the holiday unfolding?
When you relate all of these things to the specific festivity you're highlighting in your story, amazing prose can homogenously emerge, as it did in Irving's haunting language that screams and embodies Halloween:
"All the stories of ghosts and goblins that he had heard in the afternoon, now came crowding upon his recollection. The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal. He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air... The common people regarded it with a mixture of respect and superstition...
As Ichabod approached this fearful tree, he began to whistle: he thought his whistle was answered—it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches. As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree—he paused and ceased whistling; but on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle; it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.
About two hundred yards from the tree a small brook crossed the road, and ran into a marshy and thickly-wooded glen, known by the name of Wiley's swamp. A few rough logs, laid side by side, served for a bridge over this stream. On that side of the road where the brook entered the wood, a group of oaks and chestnuts, matted thick with wild grapevines, threw a cavernous gloom over it. To pass this bridge was the severest trial. This has ever...been considered a haunted stream, and fearful are the feelings of the schoolboy who has to pass it alone after dark.
As he approached the stream his heart began to thump... Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod. In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen, black, and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.
The hair of the affrighted pedagogue rose upon his head with terror. What was to be done? To turn and fly was now too late; and besides, what chance was there of escaping ghost or goblin, if such it was, which could ride upon the wings of the wind?"
Readers love holiday stories for good reason. Using these tips, you can help your readers get in the mood for the season with a timeless favorite they can look forward to returning to each year.
What are some of your favorite holiday stories? What elements make them timeless reading on those special days of the year?
Just in time for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas!
Adventures in Amethyst Trio of Holiday Romances by Karen Wiesner
Three holiday novels in one volume including:
Halloween: NEVER A BRIDE, Book 11: When Charlize met Ben, he was in a committed relationship--the last thing she wanted. She returns at Halloween to find that Ben and Layla have broken up, but his ex- is having a change of heart. Despite the complications, the solution could be as simple as a kiss.
Thanksgiving: UNLUCKY IN LOVE, Book 12: Layla and Adam find themselves jilted at Thanksgiving. Heartbroken and wondering if there's anything left to redeem, they re-evaluate life…and love.
Christmas: SHOTGUN WEDDING, Book 13: Right out high school, Trevor and Eden married for the baby on the way. Years later at Christmas time, she finds herself competing with the other woman he'd been interested in back then, and their shotgun wedding is called into question.
Find out more here:
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
She's also an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150+ titles and 16 series. Visit her here: