Note: When Storms Come In by Lea Wait appears in the current issue of Mystery Readers Journal, which features essays about extreme weather in mysteries. To read more essays like this, see http://www.mysteryreaders.org/issues/weather.html
One of the challenges of writing a mystery is keeping the hero or heroine on their toes. No matter what happens, they need to be thrown obstacle after obstacle to overcome …until finally they succeed in identifying the killer and putting the universe on an even keel once more.
Obstacles take many forms. Suspects who have motives and opportunity can lead the sleuth in the wrong direction. Personal problems – physical, emotional, or relationship – can be distracting. Life can interfere, in the guise of a flat tire or flood or fire or .. as in two of my books, Shadows of a Down East Summer and Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding, severe storms. In both cases they complicate the protagonist’s life … and therefore delay the resolution of the plot.
In Shadows of a Down East Summer a Maine nor’easter arrives on the day of an antique show scheduled to be held outdoors on a county fair ground. My protagonist, Maggie Summer, is like me: she’s an antique print dealer who refuses to do outdoor shows because of the damage winds, rain and dust can do to prints. But her beau, Will Brewer, specializes in kitchen ware and fireplace implements. He has no problem with outdoor shows.
Although I don’t exhibit at outdoor shows, I’ve attended many, and have exhibited at shows where my booth was safely indoors, but others were outside, under tents.
So I was all too familiar with the problems Maggie and Will faced when they got up pre-dawn to drive to a fairground to set up for a one-day show … and discover the road partially washed out, the fairground awash in mud, and tents teetering in high winds and heavy rains. Eventually making it to the spot where they’re going to set up, they must keep their antiques dry while moving them from the van to their booth under the tent. The tent quakes and shudders. Occasionally breaks in the stitching results in sudden downpours inside the tent .. soaking merchandise not designed to be used outdoors. The tent poles sink deeper in the mud, while the tent itself, caught by the winds, threatens to collapse or sail off. Maggie and Will are soaked, cold … and, of course, few customers arrive. Just one more day in the reality of antique dealing.
And … their absence from home dealing with the storm means than an event crucial to the mystery’s plot can happen while they are out defying the elements.
Several dozen antique dealers told me that my description of antique dealers coping with the storm was their favorite part of the book … they, too, had put the legs of mahogany tables in soup cans to keep them away from mud, and attempted in vain to keep textiles and paintings dry in torrential downpours.
The storm worked so well, in fact, that in Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding I created a late-season hurricane which hit the Cape in October. It stopped wedding guests from afar from arriving since airports were closed. Bridges were shut, roads were flooded, the wedding reception venue was under water, and electrical power was out, so food couldn’t be cooked. The storm complicated life for everyone, good and bad, on the Cape.
And of course my villain took advantage of the storm to … But, then, if I told you, you wouldn’t read the book!
I wrote Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding before Hurricane Sandy hit the New England Coast in 2012. I based the storm in the book on a hurricane I remembered: Hurricane Carol. I was a child, vacationing on the Cape with my family, in 1954 when Hurricane Carol threatened to come ashore. I remember us packing up quickly and being evacuated on the one road that leaves the Cape and crosses the bridge to the mainland… which was jammed with traffic. We later heard the cottage we’d rented that summer had been flooded up to the second floor.
Since then I’ve live through a wide assortment of hurricanes. I’ve watched as streets filled up with water. I’ve watched trees falling, one after the other, in the vacant lot across the street from my home. I’ve watched surf hitting buildings and roads far from the ocean.
Storms are a part of east coast life.
And, in Shadows on a Cape Cod Wedding the wedding is a bit damp, but it does happen .. and everybody …well, almost everybody … lives happily ever after when the storm clears.
Which should be what happens in a mystery. And in life.