Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, mulling over another of those questions that writers come up with to drive themselves crazy. If your book—which, remember, is FICTION—is set in a certain time and place and you know what the weather was like on those particular dates, do you stick to the truth or fudge the details to suit the story?
When I wrote historical novels and could discover what the weather conditions were, I always tried to use that information in the books. Even when I couldn’t find a record of what the temperature was or whether it was sunny, raining, or snowing, I was able to look up the phases of the moon. With that information, I made sure to pick a night when the moon was full if my characters needed moonlight to find their way to a midnight rendezvous. That’s a little thing, and most readers will neither know nor care if I got it right, but it was important to me that I not contradict recorded facts.
In cozy mysteries the year events take place is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Nothing dates a novel faster than including references to current events. Here’s a non-weather-related example. In one of my early Liss MacCrimmon mysteries, I had a character refer to the fact that the Red Sox were suffering from “the curse of the Bambino” and, wouldn’t you know it, before that book was published, they managed to reverse the curse. Fortunately, I was able to fix that “mistake” at the copy edit stage.
References to books and movies in novels also tend to be vague. Characters read the latest Nora Roberts novel, go to see a new superhero blockbuster, catch an old movie on television, or watch reruns of a classic sitcom. We often know that a book is set a Christmas or in July or, like next February’s A View to a Kilt, at Moosetookalook, Maine’s March Madness Mud Season Sale, but the text isn’t likely to say the story is taking place in 2019 or 2020 or any other specific year.
When I begin writing a new book, I set up a calendar to keep events in the story straight. I have a chronology for the characters’ lives that does include dates. For A Fatal Fiction, the third Deadly Edits Mystery, which I began writing in 2018, I used a calendar for 2019. At mid-April of this year, after having let the manuscript “rest” for several weeks, I started what I hope will be the next-to-last read-thru/revision before the finished book is due on my editor’s desk on the first of June. That was when I realized the my fictional timeline coincided with reality. My first thought was that this must be serendipity. Even if no one reading the finished novel ever realizes it, I’d know I got the weather right. I had ongoing weather reports for the area in which the book is set right at my fingertips, not only from the Weather Channel but also from an individual who posts them every day to the “People who come from Liberty, New York” Facebook group.
I was quite excited about the prospect . . . until the weather from April 10 until May 2, the period covered by the story, proved to be consistently cold, rainy, and generally ugly. There were even snow flurries. Spring flowers and flowering trees? Forget about it. That the grass turned green is about the best that could be said for that three week stretch. And, no, I couldn’t just change the story to another year with better weather because my plot calls for the April 15 tax deadline, Passover, Easter, and Patriot’s Day (celebrated only in Maine and Massachusetts) to fall in the same one-week period and that doesn’t happen very often.
As I pressed on with the read-thru/revision, I worked in the weather here and there. It certainly had an impact on a couple of scenes! But no one wants to hear a weather report every few pages, not unless it has some bearing on the story. When I finally came to a day on which Mikki has to do a lot of running around outside, and on which, in reality, it rained the whole darned day, I threw in the towel. For the five chapters that take place on that date, I don’t even mention the rain, or umbrellas, or puddles, or getting soaked, or turning on the windshield wipers.
I salve my conscience by telling myself I’m writing FICTION, and that novelists are allowed poetic license, too. Besides, if I were to be completely accurate in writing about those few weeks, I’d also have to have my characters react to the fire at Notre Dame and the release of the Mueller Report.
With the June 2019 publication of Clause & Effect, Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett will have had sixty books traditionally published. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries and the “Deadly Edits” series as Kaitlyn. As Kathy, her most recent book is a collection of short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com and she maintains a website about women who lived in England between 1485 and 1603 at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women.