Cold

Keira Knightley performing “how not to dress in the snow,” from King Arthur via IMDb
Keira Knightley as “how not to dress in the snow,” from King Arthur via IMDb

It’s cold outside, at least hereabouts where we are, which always sends my thoughts to the depiction of cold weather and the people who have to cope with it in the media I enjoy. The experience of serious cold weather is one that’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t lived with it, so perhaps it’s no surprise that while some books, movies, and tv shows get it right, others really don’t.

If you want to get it right in your stories, here are a few things to know about the effects of cold and how to deal with them in pre-modern settings:

Exposed skin is bad. Very bad. Especially skin with lots of blood vessels close to the surface like heads, necks, ears, noses, cheeks, hands, and feet. That’s how you lose heat, and if you lose too much heat, you can start losing body parts, too. If you find yourself out in the cold unexpectedly, the first thing you should do is cover up as much skin as you can.

John Snow realizing he knows nothing about dressing for the cold, from Game of Thrones via IMDb
John Snow realizing he knows nothing about dressing for the cold, from Game of Thrones via IMDb

Layers are good. Layering clothing creates air pockets, which is what keeps heat in. Metal provides poor insulation. Leather and cloth are better. Any cloth will do, but wool is particularly good. Fur is excellent, but if you’re wearing fur for warmth (rather than as a fashion statement), you want the fur on the inside where it can trap air more effectively, not the outside catching snow. For body parts that you can’t cover with clothing, such as your face, a layer of hair or grease will help, but not nearly as much as proper clothing.

Frostbite is VERY bad. Frostbite is not “Ah, it’s a little chilly, I think I’ll stick my hands in my pockets to warm them up.” Frostbite is when ice crystals form inside your body and kill your cells. It is treatable if caught in time, but it’s serious. This is how people lose fingers, toes, even limbs to the cold. Less serious than frostbite is frostnip, when the body pulls blood away from exposed skin. Frostnip is treatable just by warming up, but do not rub! Rubbing frostnipped or frostbitten skin can cause damage to tissues made fragile by the cold.

Dangerous cold doesn’t always feel cold. The experience of frostbite and frostnip doesn’t necessarily feel cold. The affected area may actually feel hot or just numb. This is the result of nerve cells shutting down or dying. In extreme cases, some people suffering hypothermia will start taking off their clothes because they feel overheated, even though they are literally dying of cold. Alcohol increases blood flow to the skin and extremities which makes you feel warmer (and can be useful when you’ve come in out of the cold into warmer surroundings), but can be dangerous when you’re still exposed to cold temperatures.

People are mammals. That means, in addition to some other fun features, we make our own heat. That heat comes from the same place the rest of our energy comes from: food. Cold makes you hungry. Eating keeps you warm.

Cold makes you go. Your body responds to cold by pulling blood away from the extremities into the core. Your kidneys respond to all that blood rushing around by going into overdrive trying to purge excess fluid from your system, leading to a full bladder.

These are all things to remember as you write about characters braving the harsh winter weather. I’ll leave the last word, though, to Magnar of Finn:

Post edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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