Kate: Many years ago, when my first book came out, I was at Malice Domestic, one of the big national writers’ conferences, and I was assigned to a panel about weather. It sounded like a dull topic, just the kind of thing that an unknown newbie would be assigned to, but as I considered what I might say about weather that would be interesting to a reader or another writer, I realized that weather–how it affects our character’s moods, how they prepare for it, and how it affects the events and action in our books–is actually a pretty important aspect of our writing. Maine has weather of all sorts, infinitely changeable weather that gives rise to the old expression: If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. In particular, it has fog, wonderful dense, pea-soupy fog that slows driving to a crawl, distorts sounds, and blunts the senses. Fog that can come and go. Fog that cranks up the danger factor and jacks up the tension when a character needs to be somewhere and speed is out of the question.
In one scene in the second Joe Burgess book, The Angel of Knowlton Park, it’s a blazing hot morning in Portland, and Detective Stan Perry, who dressed in the dark to rush to the crime scene, is wearing a navy windbreaker over his t-shirt. When Burgess suggests he take the jacket off before he gets heat stroke, he opens it just far enough so Burgess can read his t-shirt. It says: Homicide: Our Day Begins When Your Day Ends.
How have the rest of you used weather in your books?
Barb: If they gave an award for “best use of weather,” in a book, I would give it to Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine in A Fatal Inversion. It takes place in (or actually flashes back to) the drought-plagued summer of 1976, still the hottest on record in Britain. In this book, which did win a Gold Dagger Award, the weather is for all intents and purposes a character.
My book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, opens on the first warm day of spring. The weather reflects my protagonist Acting Police Chief Ruth Murphy’s mood; she’s just received some very good news. But typical of spring in New England, there’s plenty of rough weather ahead.
On more thing about weather. For many writers, when we have to write a difficult scene, in the first draft, there’s often a little warm-up before we get into it. For one of the people in my writers group, this was always a description of the weather. The more difficult the scene was to write, the longer the description would go on. (For another person, characters would always sit down for a cup of tea before a difficult conversation. For me, it’s always a completely unnecessary description of the surrounding architecture.) So in the writers group, when a manuscript is beating around the bush, “No more weather!” has become our universal critique for quit stalling and get down to it.
Kate: Barb…I understand that “no more weather.” When I was an editor at Level Best Books, we got a story once that began with a page of boiling weather. We all thought, “New MFA.” But we read on, and it was a great story, so we got to be that author’s first publisher. When I edit manuscripts, I often go back to the author with the comment–don’t just describe the weather, use it. Use it to deepen character, to make your scene more vivid, to underscore emotion, to create tension or throw an obstacle in someone’s path. Use the weather for contrast–bright sun with dark mood, for example, or the ‘no amount of rain’ could damped her spirits. Often, the challenge is in the balance, in the difference between stopping the action to describe weather, stepping out of scene and risking losing your reader, and making the weather an organic part of the action
Paul: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Bulwer-Lytton’s first sentence to Paul Clifford ranks with “Call me Ishmael” as the most famous opening to a novel in literature. It has also become a shorthand for “bad writing,” and there is now a Bulwer-Lytton prize for the lousiest lead sentence of the year. (That’s one award you don’t want to win.) I’d say that bad writing is just bad writing, whether it’s about the weather or a character’s morning ablutions or whatever. Lots of novelists have a problem procrastinating their way into their stories. It happens to all of us, I’d wager, in early drafts before we exert the discipline to go back and cut so that we’re beginning with the action that truly leads into the story we mean to tell.
For me this topic is highly personal since my books are essentially about weather. Game wardens work outside, all the time. They’re like law enforcement postal workers that way (neither rain nor sleet nor driving snow shall keep them from their appointed rounds). In the middle of Trespasser there is a horrible ice storm, and while I didn’t begin the book with that section in mind, the novel is now inconceivable to me without that passage. The rest of the story couldn’t take place without Mike Bowditch engaging in an ill-considered ATV chase in those miserable conditions.
I mildly disagree with Kate in one regard: Sometimes a quick description of weather can be fine all by itself if the writer is a prose stylist like Raymond Chandler: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.” Now this sentence has nothing to do with the rest of the Big Sleep, but man, is that pure poetry. I suppose you could say that Chandler used the weather to establish Marlowe’s unique voice.
And then there’s the beginning of his famous story “Red Wind,” which I will just quote and let stand on its own for its jaw-dropping power: “There was a desert wind blowing that 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.”
Kate: Elmore Leonard, in his essay: “Easy on the Hooptedoodle: Ten Rules for Writers” tells us never to begin a book with the weather, but then goes on to qualify that by saying that if you can write like Barry Lopez, you can put in all the weather you want. Weather described just to describe weather is different from weather that is used to build a sense of place or deepen character. Paul, as you’ve noted, that quote from Red Wind doesn’t just talk about weather. It describes the effect of weather on people, and it gives us a sense of place and of the narrator/character’s world view and voice…and that is storytelling.
Jim: One of things I like best about Maine as a setting for my books is the state’s extreme weather. In fact, the plot of the second McCabe thriller, The Chill of Night, in completely dependent on really bad weather. The story couldn’t have been told without mountains of snow and sub-zero temperatures. The body of the first victim, attorney Lainie Goff, is found frozen solid in the trunk of her BMW. An autopsy can’t be performed until she thaws. The villain can’t dispose of his second victim because the ground is too frozen to dig a grave, so he just buries him under a mound of snow. The key witness, Abby Quinn, gets lost in a blizzard and almost freezes to death. And the hero, McCabe nearly loses his toes to frostbite.
Kate: And fog, Jim. A very important factor, especially since you can be in pea soup fog one minute and totally in the clear the next. After my two days riding with a warden, I have a wonderful new fog story and an easy dozen about hypothermia and its effect on the ability to reason. Every season in Maine has it’s weather, and weather-related issues. Mud season? How the fall leaves come down and mask that newly dug grave. I woke this morning thinking about weather in King Lear, and how it is a backdrop to the whole play. It wouldn’t be the same story without storms on the heath and the way it underscores the character’s emotions.
Gerry: What a fun discussion. Just a quick addition:
Like the Maine landscape, Maine weather is a full-fledged character. An event at noon on a lovely July day is very different from a driving rainstorm at midnight. Our technology has estranged us from weather in many ways but it still is a force in our lives. I love it when we go someplace where there is no electricity (a coastal island, for example) and walk the trails home to our cottage. In the dark. In the fog. Eyes peering into the mist. Ears listening for danger. Those senses need to be revived in our readers.
I have a notebook called weather. I describe different days and nights and when you do this, you find that no two weather events are exactly the same.
Kate: Gerry…a notebook called weather is a wonderful idea. I used to have a small notebook full of things like car crashes and the many words for pain, but one for weather is something I think I’ll add. Not only useful for the books but useful to tune up one’s senses and the importance of close observation. Sometimes this challenge sends me scurrying for my beloved Rodale’s Synonym Finder to get a better descriptive word.
Something that often strikes me, when I’m interviewing cops and wardens, is when they talk about how the sounds of walking in snow are different depending on the temperature. Very useful for Paul’s warden, but important for all of our characters as well.
Sarah: Maine weather affects me twice: once on the page, as whatever the weather is exerts its effect on my characters, and once in my work room, where if it’s howling cold out I tend to stay and write another few pages, but if it’s fine outside, chances are I’ll be there soon, too. An example of the former came up in my upcoming one, Dead Level, when the bad guy couldn’t bury his murdered wife so he put her out on the woodpile, where she froze and the snow covered her. But an early thaw that revealed part of her blue dress, and the arrival of some religious pamphleteers at the same time put, as he called it later, a “hitch in his git-along.”