Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Weather and Books

We’ve all watched with horror what the weather has done to the East Coast just now. All of us who weren’t actually there, suffering, that is. It’s got me to thinking about weather. I have a problem with one of the things writers are warned about: Never start your book with the weather. I’m sure you can do this badly, and maybe enough writers have done so that the warning came about. But you can do it well, too.

Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky
On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret  in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, toward K. Bridge.

The Idiot, same author
Towards the end of November, during a warm spell, at around nine o’clock in the morning, a train of the Petersburg-Warsaw line was approaching Petersburg at full steam. It was so damp and foggy that dawn could barely break; ten paces to the right or left of the line it was hard to make out anything at all through the carriage windows.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud on the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Those are two of my favorite authors and they may not be yours, but I don’t mind following in their inkprints.

I consider the weather extremely important. It dictates what my characters are wearing, how they get around, what noises they’re hearing and seeing, even what they’re smelling when it rains, and in the aftermath. It needs to fit the season. If I set a book in October, my characters have to be conscious of the fact that Halloween is coming, and in many places the weather will be making a major shift that month.

Hemingway agrees with me. He said, "Remember to get the weather in your god damned book - weather is very important."

There is a problem, though. Weather can be verrry borrring. Just listen to back-to-back news programs where the weather is talked about for five minutes on each show, whether or not it’s doing anything at all. Also, it’s such a pervasive part of our lives that it’s too easy to use clichés in descriptions. You’ve heard this: “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” The fact is, everyone DOES talk about it. “How enough for ya?” “We sure could use the rain.” “How many inches did you get?” Those are common ways to greet each other in Texas. It’s hard to find something new to say about sunshine, rain, snow, and wind. But you can do it!

I like to tie the weather to one of two things. Either what’s happening in the plot, or to my character’s mood. Sometimes it can be used for contrast, sometimes to underline. And sometimes you can bring on a tornado or a storm or a drought and make it part of the plot.

How do you use weather in your writing? Do you think it’s important, or of secondary importance?

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  1. Every time I hear that no-weather rule, I think about Bleak House. I don't see how you can write a book set in Texas without mentioning the weather. Maybe that's because my own mood and physical condition depend on how hot/cold/wet/dry it is. I can't imagine my MC taking a walk in summer without feeling the heat. At a graveside service in a country cemetery in late spring, she fans herself and takes cover under a shade tree. When the temperature drops 20 degrees within an hour, she perks up but rarely has a sweater handy. There are so many possibilities in Texas weather, it would be a shame to ignore them.

  2. Thanks for coming by, Kathy. Yes, I think the weather is important everywhere! The only exception might be Hawaii or the Caribbean, where it's the same all year long unless they're having a hurricane.