Monday, 20 June 2016

The Longest Day

Summer Solstice Sunrise over Stonehenge 2005

Today is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Not, perhaps, the most obviously relevant fact for writers and illustrators of children's books, but I would like to show that thinking around it could make a difference.




Probably the most famous place in the British Isles for observing the Summer Solstice is Stonehenge. The prehistoric stones appear to line up with the rising sun on the longest day. It is decidedly not the only place - but as with all these sites, we don't truly know what our ancestors did there.

The catch-all archaeologist's answer is 'ritual' - in the same way a doctor will call an unknown illness a non-specific virus.

This leaves it all wonderfully open to interpretation. Clearly if you're creating non-fiction or historical works, you have to do your research, but oh, the fun for creative writers, and illustrators! And those of us working in the full-on fantasy or speculative fiction genres don't have to be left out. Any tilted, spinning planet is likely to have similar moments in its cosmological year.

As it happens, this year there's a full moon as well. Alignments of stars, moons and planets are not just significant for astrology and the like: there's the observable effect on tides and gravity. Neptune was only discovered because of its pull on Uranus. The solstices might be significant for similar reasons in your created world.


Solstice means the sun stands still. On both the shortest day and the longest, it gives this illusion just before it heads northwards or southwards, and the nights get longer or shorter. Some people refer to these points as The Turning of the Year - and there's a tradition that any plant that has failed to grow by midsummer* is doomed.
                                                                                          * Midsummer Day is 24th June in the UK for ancient legal reasons

There's good science in that - the angle and amount of light declines from the Summer Solstice onwards. (That's 20th/21st December in the Southern Hemisphere, of course). The nearer the poles you go, the longer the twilight. Hence you get the Midnight Sun inside the Arctic circle. I've seen the beautiful eerie Simmer Dim in Orkney and Shetland. That could be a feature in your world.

Mist forming over Loch of Quoys is starting to spill out of the valley.

  © Copyright Mike Pennington and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The corollary is that near the Equator, there's very little change at all. That might be something to think about: the length of shadows, how quickly night falls in different places.

John Wayne in 'The Longest Day' 1962
Finally, we use the longest day figuratively. There is Cornelius Ryan's novel about the D Day landings, which became a famous film in 1962. No-one meant it happened on the solstice - but that the time seemed to stand still on that June 6th. We all know how time can stretch at significant moments, that waiting can bring an intensity to the smallest detail. There's a thing to think about when pacing your work - even the most contemporary.
                                                                   

Some questions for you to ponder about the world of your story:
  • Are there customs or traditions about the solstice?
  • What about rites or rituals?
  • What beliefs, not necessarily religious, have there been in the past - and now? Could there be a conflict?
  • Will changes in the length of day matter? How would that feel to your characters?
  • Do cosmic forces make any real difference there? Is this the same throughout your world?
  • Will events make time seem to contract, stand still or rush ahead? How can you show this?

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