Is the weather a major character in your stories?
January 7, 2016
WHEN IT COMES TO WEATHER, there is one basic truism about writing novels.
Don’t start the book with it.
The first line of a novel shouldn’t be “the day was cold and rainy,” or “a heavy blanket of storm clouds were gathering in the west,” or “a hot summer sun bore down on his bare head as he walked along the street.”
Weather has no place at the beginning. Weather is generally boring at the beginning.
But weather has a definite place in a good novel. Weather has a major role to play. It can, in many cases, become one of your leading characters.
It creates mood.
It creates atmosphere.
It can create suspense in a mystery.
It can create a romantic backdrop for a love story.
It sets time.
It sets the season.
It sets place.
However, when dealing with weather, it’s all show and not tell.
Don’t say it’s hot.
Don’t say it’s cold.
Don’t say it’s stormy.
Choose the words that allow your reader to discover how hot, cold, or stormy it might be.
Here is how James Lee Burke did it in The Wayfaring Stranger: It was the year none of the seasons followed their own dictates. The days were warm and the air hard to breathe without a kerchief, and the nights cold and damp. The wet burlap nailed over the windows was stiff with the grit that blew in clouds out of the west, amid sounds like a train grinding across the prairie.
And I have always been haunted by Raymond Chandler’s opening of Red Wind: There was a desert wind opening in the night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Chandler began his story with the weather, and he got away with it.
The weather curled your hair.
The weather made your nerves jump.
The weather made your skin itch.
Mayhem followed where the hot dry winds blew.
J.K. Rowling used the weather to set the stage for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
Sherwood Anderson used a short paragraph about the weather in Winesburg, Ohio, and you immediately felt as though you were no longer on the outside looking in. You were standing in the middle of the story itself. He wrote: The fruition of the year had come and the night should have been fine with a moon in the sky and the crisp sharp promise of frost in the air, but it wasn’t that way. It rained and little puddles of water shone under the street lamps on Main Street. In the woods in the darkness beyond the Fair Ground water dripped from the black trees.
There is an old saying that one generation always hands down to the next. Some claim it was first uttered by Mark Twain: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”
Well, when writing a novel, you can do anything you want to with the weather.
I prefer to make it a major character.
The weather is like a noose.
Drop it around your reader’s throat and pull tighter and tighter as the novel moves along.
It stays cold.
It stays hot.
A storm hits.
It doesn’t leave.
In Conspiracy of Lies, I wanted to create the stifled misery of August in New Mexico. I wrote: The morning chill had wilted, and beyond the edge of town, he could see the heat already rising up off the desert floor. The heat was dry and prickly, working its way into his flesh like a thorn. It had already begun to fester.
Of course, I hardly ever have the stories in my novels last for more than a week, so it’s only natural for the weather to hang around to the bitter end.
But these are two things I do know.
Heat or cold makes the good guys miserable.
Heat or cold is even worse on the bad guys.
As Raymond Chandler said, on those kinds of nights anything can happen.
And it usually does.
My Conspiracy of Lies was stifled and smothered by the unbearable heat of New Mexico.