Lovely Weather But Not for a Crime Writer

Hi. Gerry Boyle here. And not to rain on the early-spring-in-Maine parade but does this weather stink or what?

I don’t mean just that when it’s sunny and 70 I’d rather be out raking the lawn than sitting in a study at a computer, though I do have strap myself to the chair. I mean what sort of crime novel is inspired by a sky as blue as the bottom of a swimming pool? A  breeze that caresses like somebody stroking a favorite cat? A day that leaves you face up to the sky, eyes closed above a punch-drunk smile? (Can you tell I’ve been rereading Raymond Chandler?)

Well, not any crime novel I’d like to write.

There’s a reason that it rains so much in this genre. Why the winter days in crime novels are cold and gray. Why in crime novels every summer day is threatened by a looming thunderstorm. Why the air is close and sticky or damp and raw. Why Scandinavian crime fiction is hot. I mean cold.

In Maine books, the weather is like a character, looming over the rest of the crew. I’m mulling a winter book right now, set in Portland. I need dirty snowbanks. An icy wind that blasts down city blocks. Sea spray that freezes in mid-air. Slush splashed by passing buses. Nights that descend with gloom and doom. At 4:30.

I can conjure all of that if I concentrate but I have to say that it isn’t helping that every time I turn my head I see blue sky. Hear my bike calling from the barn. That with one tap of the keyboard I can see the forecast: 65, 68, 72, 79. And my characters are trudging down Portland streets, bent into the northeast wind.

Maybe this is easy for you to imagine but I need a little help. Yeah, I know no day is the same as another so we should be able to write it that way. But since I always seem to be writing in the opposite season, I need some prompting. That’s why I keep a notebook called “Weather Notes.” Every day or two I describe that day’s weather in detail. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes not so much. But I try to get it down because I know that in a few months I’ll be trying to imagine a snowstorm while temps are in the 90s. Or a suffocating heat wave when it’s five below.

So I look back at the notes.

Jan. 28. Snow, heavy and bulky and deliberate, changed to tapping sleet, than an angular sheet of rain.

Jan. 29, everything frozen solid, cat prints in the walk like something out of Pompeii.

Feb. 10, Moonset 6:30 a.m. pale moon slips down behind hills to the west as a rosy glow seeps into the eastern sky. 

Feb. 17, big melt, smell of decay from gutters and snowpiles. Dog poop, beer cans emerging from receding snow, trash. Somebody’s been smoking Swisher Sweets.

And so on. Little prompts that help you feel and smell that winter morning after you’ve been for a swim in the lake. I’m sure we all have our ways to prime the pump of the imagination. So here you have it. A peek at the cheat sheet. Between us. Love to hear your tricks of the trade.







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5 Responses to Lovely Weather But Not for a Crime Writer

  1. MCWriTers says:

    I can cheat and ask my mother. Yes, she’s been gone for five years, but she kept a daily journal that included weather and vegetation and close observation. So when I’m trying to write winter in summer or fall in spring, I can dig out an old notebook and read through a month of her notes.

    For me, the real problem with this winter’s weather has been staying in the chair. I love sealing myself up in story for months, without the temptation to go out to the garden or take a walk. Good weather means a greater challenge to discipline, and more temptation, just when I have the most work to do.

    Still, as I’m starting a new book (just when the rest of MC Writers seem to be finishing) I’ll have my antennae up, noticing what the onset of spring looks like, sounds like, smells like. And looking at the news, to see if the crimes are different.


  2. Lea Wait says:

    All the reasons I could visit the south but never live there! I love the turning of the seasons, and they matter in my books! (I just finished writing about a nor’easter…) My first published book was structured around the changes — in the weather, in the natural world, and in what people did, from March through December. (It was set in 1806 .. but the idea was firmly set in my mind.) I take notes for weather and natural history, too, but my “cheat sheets” are two books. One is new — Naturally Curious, by Mary Holland, a month-by-monrth field guide to natural history in New England, and is from 1984 – E.C. Parker’s A Natural History of Camden and Rockport. Both of them keep me honest abut what’s happening in the air, sea, marshes and fields so I don’t have the wrong birds flying or frogs peeping in Juy.

  3. Gerry Boyle says:

    Great ideas. I figured I’d get that from the pros at MCW. And no, I don’t want to get the birds wrong. Like a gun goof, you’ll always hear from readers if you make a mistake about birds.
    I’m going to check out those books.

  4. Gerry, the weather journal is a brilliant idea (for those of us not fortunate enough to have had A. Carmen Clark as a mother!)

    I’m having a hard time with the weather, as well. I’m pushing to finish my eighth Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne book, which is set in the Adirondacks. In January. During an ice storm. Usually, I have plenty of inspiration for cold, ice and snow, even through March, but this year it feels like spring-break-in-Florida has come to Maine. It’s hard to write about people threatened with death-by-cold when you’re wearing flip-flops and capris (as I am, right now!)

  5. I had the same problem!

    FINAL SETTLEMENT was due March 1st, and although I got it in on time, I had a very hard time “relating” to the book’s February-blizzard setting… it just didn’t happen this year. I had to keep telling myself — “it’s cold. Very cold.” — Meanwhile, I took great walks along Rockport and Camden harbors with my dog because our January and February were balmy by comparison.

    Good luck, Gerry!

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