What can your character do to cope with cabin fever? How can you weave this into your story? What does Typhoid Mary have to do with this? Find out on this episode. 

Welcome to Writing Rural with Alley, the fiction writer’s inspiration station for rural life and lifestyles, from historical to post-apocalyptic, helping you bring your rural stories to life! I’m Alley, and this is episode #50 Managing Cabin Fever. Stick around to the end to find out all the ways things could go wrong. Now, let’s get into this.

Cabin fever is defined as a prolonged period of isolation (usually inside) that causes claustrophobia, agitation, frustration, and restlessness. In modern times, it might be described as climbing up the walls. This isolation can be completely alone or confined to a small place with others. 

There are many documented cases of this in modern(ish) times. When the space shuttle first took astronauts to the moon in 1968, they became snippy with each other, and there were many tense conversations with mission control. 

Another is in 1898-1899, the doomed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The crew of the ship Endurance were stuck in drifting ice for 10 months before abandoning the ship and spending months trying to find their way out of the Atlantic. When found, the whole crew was said to be suffering mental difficulties. I’m sure there are even more examples out there, but hopefully, this gives you a rough idea. 

The term cabin fever was coined in a book published in 1918. Can you guess the name of the book? If you guessed Herbert and The Strawberry Puppy, you guessed wrong. It was Cabin Fever, a book about a man named Bud. 

However, the term before that was typhus. It is actually connected to Typhoid Mary. To sum up her story, Mary was a cook who had typhoid but was asymptomatic. However, many of the people she served food to, contracted typhoid, and many died. When the authorities found out about this, they took her first to the hospital but later to North Brother’s Island, where she was given a cabin to isolate in. She was there for two years, before pressure from the people forced the authorities to release her since her illness was not something she had known or could control. The release agreement was that she would not serve food to people again. However, five years later, there was another outbreak, and once again, Mary was behind it. This time, she was taken back and spent the rest of her life (23 years) in isolation. 

Before that, cabin fever and typhus were referred to as ennui. This literally translates to bored because of isolation and lack of stimulation. 

You might be wondering why they had words for it, because it seems to be a bigger deal in today’s time than before the 1800s. That might have something to do with fewer people writing, but I believe it is because people who lived in areas prone to winter storms dealt with this every year. When you do things every year, or are used to something, it is not as big of a deal to you as it is to other people. While most people my age, and especially younger, would panic and be bored if the power went out, I have lived without electricity and know how to handle it. I believe that people used to know how to deal with isolation, too. 

So let’s go over some of the ways that people deal with cabin fever. 

Historically people used to save some of their indoor work for winter. Women often made new clothing for their families during winter. They also knitted things like socks, shawls, and children’s toys. They also used this time to make soap and extra candles. I say, “extra,” because they will have already had some made for the longer nights before they would have been snowed in. 

Historically, men saved things like tanning hides, whittling, and making fishing nets. They also took the chance to care for, clean up, or sharpen any tools. This included hand saws, chisels, hand drills, knives, and more. 

There were also family projects that could be done, like reading or teaching the children to read. They could teach their children math or other skills. Baking and candy-making were done during this time as well. Storytelling was and, frankly, is a favorite of all ages. Singing is enjoyed by many families. There are also games that can be played. Whether they are board games or cards, it is something fun and entertaining. 

So, what would this look like? Let’s give you a few examples. Let’s say you have a mother, a father, and a few children. The day would likely start with the father and any older children going out to take care of chores, like feed and water animals, haul wood in the house, and things of this nature.

Meanwhile, the mother will watch over little kids while cooking breakfast. Many mothers will be the ones to haul in the water. This might mean she leaves the little babies in a crib or playpen so she can do this, or they might be in a sling so she can carry them. 

The family will eat together and then the kids will likely be the ones doing the dishes. The mother might start boiling water to do the laundry while the father sits down to do some reading lessons with the children who are old enough. Both could take a couple of hours. Then, the mother would make lunch, and there would be another meal and clean up. 

Afterward, the kids could play some games, while the father works on getting a fishing net made for next fishing season. The mother might be sewing clothing until it is time to make dinner. Another meal and clean up, the evening chores of putting the animals up for the night, and anything else they need to do will be done. Then, the whole family sits down to tell stories while the mother sews and the father whittles toys for the children. Then it’s off to bed, and the entire day starts over the next morning. 

Now let’s say it was only a single male that was a trapper living in a cabin. Even while trappers are outdoors, they are not around other people, meaning they are isolated.

A trapper’s day might start with the same chores for any animals he has, then on to breakfast and enough food for lunch on the go, and clean up the mess from cooking. Afterward, he would check his traps. This could take most of the day. When he returned, he would have to process the animals he caught. Process means to skin and cut them up to eat or maybe feed to sled dogs, if he had any. If there were a lot of animals he trapped, this could take some time. He would then make dinner and then do any more evening chores he needed to, such as putting animals up for the night. Then he can relax for the evening. Maybe he mended some clothing he had, or perhaps he whittled a new spoon. 

Each person and each family will be different in what they prioritize, but staying busy is the main objective. Things people don’t want to do should be done first or close to first in the day because, if we wait, it likely will not get done.

Remember, just as we love writing stories, oral storytelling has always been loved too. From passing down the past to fantasy stories about turtles bringing the golden touch, humans love stories. Children want to hear about their parents’ past. What was it like when they were kids? Lessons people learned will be told, and many stories are told over and over. 

It can also be used to teach people what to do or pass on special codes to the next generation. For example, three lemonades in the window with one glass of water in the story means the enemy is coming; then, your character sees it in real life and realizes it wasn’t just a story. This could be a fun story in a story you could add. 

Fun fact: The term “cabin fever” was coined in 1918 by author BM Bower, a woman whose real name was Bertha Muzzy Sinclair. 

What could possibly go wrong?

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Likely to go wrong: Your character is grumpy and bickers with their family over small things. 

Likely to go wrong: Your character could sleep much more often and longer when snowed in for months at a time. 

Possible to go wrong: Your character is caring for their tools, and while sharpening a saw, they slip and cut their hand deeply. 

Possible to go wrong: Your characters continually bump into each other as they are confined to the same tiny space. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your character could be isolated for months, and when they finally are able to get out and talk to other people, they find they struggle to make coherent sentences the same as before. This is a documented phenomenon with people who have no one to talk to for extended periods of time. 

Unlikely to go wrong: Your characters get bored of playing the same games over and over. They might invent a new game just to have something different to do. This could cause arguments or even fist fights when each character wants to play it their way and not the other’s way. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character is trapped with their family for the winter. Like a scene from The Shining, they one day snap and kill their family over something relatively small. 

Improbable but still technically in the realm of possibilities: Your character is trapped for an extended period of time and starts having hallucinations and becomes paranoid that aliens are coming for them. 

Thanks for listening! You can find the show notes and helpful links to learn more on my website, alleyhart.com. That’s A-L-L-E-Y-H-A-R-T.com. Subscribe or follow for more episodes. Connect by dropping me a comment on my YouTube videos. A new episode comes out every Monday. Until then. Happy wordsmithing. 

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