Lea Wait, here. I’ve just finished writing two books, in two mystery series, that I hope you’ll be reading next year: one takes place in a cold Maine February, and the other in Maine’s mud season … early April. And in both books, the time of year frames the story, which wouldn’t be exactly the same if it were set in another month.
My two most recent books are the same. PIZZA TO DIE FOR, which debuted in August, is set about the time you’re reading this book: early October, in the suburbs of New Jersey. And THREAD THE HALLS, the sixth in the Mainely Needlepoint series, begins the week before Christmas.
Thinking back over my books, mysteries or historicals, I realized that one of the first decisions I make when planning/plotting a book is not only where the book takes place (and the year, if it is an historical) but the month. Before I begin writing I make a list of what happens in the natural world that month, in that place. What birds are there? Animals? Are they mating? Taking care of young? Hibernating? Have winter birds replaced summer birds? What wildflowers are in bloom? Weeds? Gardens? Vegetables? Are there leaves on trees? What trees – what colors? I include insects, fish, amphibians, and how much sunlight there is. When are sunrises and sunsets? What are average temperatures? If there are storms — will they be blizzards? nor’easters? thunder storms? showers? flooding rains?
I consult those notes while I’m writing. They often explain what my characters do – when they do it – what they wear – what they see – and so forth.
In PIZZA TO DIE FOR, fourteen year old future chef Mikki Norden wears sweatshirts (usually Seattle Seahawks shirts) because temperatures are chilly, and she misses her home out west. Leaves are falling; they’re slippery after rain, and she falls. Houses are decorated with pumpkins and chrysanthemums. The library displays a (real) skeleton reading Halloween books. When Mikki is kidnapped her well-meaning but bumbling kidnapper wraps her in a quilt so she won’t be cold. I don’t remember if I ever say it is October. But I suspect my readers will know.
On the other hand, THREAD THE HALLS takes place in a classic Currier and Ives New England Christmas setting. It snows almost every day. Roads can be icy. A bad storm knocks out power. Houses are covered with snow, and decorated with lights and wreaths. When a body is found it is partially covered by snow. Police try to see footprints covered by continuing flakes. Fires are in fireplaces; people are dressed warmly. Cardinals and chickadees are at bird feeders.
Seasonal details in each book influence the plot directly. Some just set the stage. But without them, the books wouldn’t be the same.
Which, as I now begin a book set in late April, I’m very conscious of.
And, I think, so are my readers.
I was sitting on the beach in Bermuda, reviewing the galleys for my very first book, and had one of those “OH HORRORS!” moments. I’d set it in fall and written in the spring, and I had blooming azaleas in New England in the fall. Oops! Luckily I caught it in time to fix it.
Weather makes a huge difference. What do we carry in our cars? What will our characters wear?
Absolutely! (Glad you caught those out-of-season azaleas!)
Lea, thank you for the “seasonal” advice. You have given me another way to flesh out my historical YA novel, set in the 12th century in France. (Now . . . to find out the weather, and if there were unusual weather patterns in that time.)
Glad to be of help, Carlienne. I knw there are site where yo can check weather in the past …I’ve used them, but not recently enough to remember them! In one of my books set in 1820 I needed a scene to happen at a full moon … and managed to do that accurately. It’s especially good when weather/seasons reflect the plot in some way, without being terribly obvious! Have fun!