Does the weather play a role in your story?

Heat or cold makes the good guys miserable. Heat or cold is even worse for the bad guys.

When it comes to weather, there is one basic truism in 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 was gathering in the west,” or “a hot summer sun bore down on his bare head as he walked along the street.”

Weather may not have a place at the beginning.

But weather has a definite place in a good novel.

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.

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.

Why?

The weather curled your hair.

The weather made your nerves jump.

The weather made your skin itch.

Mayhem followed when the hot dry winds blew.

Even 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’s cold.

It stays cold.

It’s hot.

It stays hot.

A storm hits.

It doesn’t leave.

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. The winter in Night Side of Dark was an agony that no one could escape. I wrote: They shivered in the chill of the morning as snow banked against their legs. Or were they trembling because they knew what others feared to think about when the nights were cold and dark, and men counted each breath, wondering if it would be their last? 

But these are two things I do know.

Heat or cold makes the good guys miserable.

Heat or cold is even worse for the bad guys.

As Raymond Chandler said, on those kinds of nights anything can happen.

And it usually does.

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  • I add one constraint to my writing: the weather has to be something the character chooses to talk about, thinks about because of some trigger, and actually takes note of for a good reason. Omniscient narrators can set a tone with weather (I love the Red Wind opening, the meek housewives (ouch) and the suddenly vulnerable husbands’ necks) that I don’t allow myself. Doesn’t matter, it’s a great mood setter however you get it in, and whatever language you portray it with. Only, it has to fit.

    Constraints are not limiting once you learn to work within them.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Well said, Alicia. Nothing sets a mood, good or bad, like the weather. It also symbolizes mood changes in the character: Sunny one day. Dark and blue the next. A character trudging through a snow storm thinks and acts differently from a character strolling along a beach at sunset.

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