I adore pinecones— the woodsy smell, the rough texture and complex structure, the memories they conjure.
Last week I was putting away the final remnants of my Christmas decorations when it occurred to me that I use pinecones and tree branches a lot in my house, not just at Christmastime but throughout the year. From my earliest childhood, the woods have been for me a powerful symbol of the enchanted forest with all its delightful and sinister possibilities.
Family vacations in the Wisconsin Northwoods always began with stern parental warnings about bears, badgers, rogue porcupines, poisonous berries, and, most importantly, the real possibility of getting lost. But to me, the woods also offered the enticing prospects of exploration and discovery—never-before-seen wildflowers, hidden ponds, animal dens, curious markings on tree bark that I interpreted as secret messages left by forest dwellers (whoever they were). It’s the dual nature of the forest that intrigues me—a place of both danger and adventure, a place where you can lose your way or find your freedom.
The Brothers Grimm used the forest image often—Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel. In fairytales, the woods are the realm of dark secrets and unknowable threats; but they also represent refuge and safety, a magical world where animals can talk and anything might happen.
Shakespeare used the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the setting for betrayal and bravery, where identities blur and anyone can fall in love with anyone—even a donkey. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mirkwood is a vast primeval woodland, home to the friendly Silvan elves and the distinctly unfriendly giant spiders. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne can remove the scarlet A on her breast only in the forest. In the Woods by Tana French begins with a tragic incident in the woods that is repeated but never fully resolved. Surely the safest and friendliest woods in literature is the adult-free Hundred Acre Wood of Winnie-the-Pooh.
It occurred to me this week that I’ve used the woods as a setting in my own novels as well. In both A Dream of Death, set on an island in the Scottish Hebrides, and A Legacy of Murder, set in a small Suffolk village in England, the woods are a place of great beauty and unexpected death.
Every writer and every reader will resonate with certain settings because they spark our imaginations and conjure our memories. Show me a book with woods on the cover and I will pick it up. Do certain settings in novels attract you? Where does your imagination take you—the seaside, the mountains, the desert, a foreign country?