Monday, May 7, 2007

ON DARK AND STORMY NIGHTS

Maycomb was ...a tired old town. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then....men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.


****To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

RO:
Maybe I'm obsessing about the weather because its May and I'm still freezing, but I can't help but notice how seamlessly some writers weave weather details into their stories. Since my amateur sleuth is a gardener, a certain amount of weather info is integral to the story, but I'm very self-conscious when I do it. As if it's something I learned in Writing 101, "always put the weather in." Without a legitimate narrative reason for it (i.e., story revolves around a storm, flood, etc.)do you generally use weather to help create a mood in your books? And how do you do it, so that it doesn't sound like an interruption, or latebreaking news from The Weather Channel?

HANK:
And do people just skip the weather parts? Reporters--like my main character, and (cough) like me--always have to know what the weather is. So she checks to see if it's going to rain during her live shot, making her mascara run and blowing her hair around so it sticks to her lipstick, or if she needs snow boots, or whether the sun is going to be a lighting asset or detriment. Hallie says to plague your characters with discomfort (See Hallie? I use your book every day...)and the weather can be a cold wet stormy windy obstacle. ((And let me just say: if you had the idea for an all-weather channel, say, ten years ago, would you have thought it could possibly work? Do people really sit and watch the weather?))

RO:
That's right..I remember her saying that at her workshop at Crimebake. I did buy the book Hallie...btw I loved that workshop. Really got a lot out of it.

HALLIE:
I think weather is great when it's part of the plot, or when you use it show something about your character (Hank's example) -- in other words, it's there for a reason...also useful for showing the passage of time in an artful way ("the rain had stopped and stars twinkled...") But woe to those who forget Elmore Leonard's writing rule #1: "Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people." (see http://www.elmoreleonard.com/) On the other hand (there's always one in writing)...for a great weather opening, see Tony Hillerman's "Listening Woman."
It is hard, as Ro points out, to write it so it's not a cliche or a news bulletin.

JAN:
I agree with Hallie. Unless the weather is a part of the plot or critical to character, it's incidental. IE. boring. I struggle to put it in sometimes, too, because I'm trying to make the environment real. But most likely, if it's a struggle, it doesn't belong there.

HANK:
But when it's real, people love weather. What it's going to be like tomorrow? What's the weather where Mom is? I read somewhere they have a computer program that will flawlessly predict the weather. Problem is, its so complicated that by the time it makes the prediction, the weather has already happened. (Off the topic, I know.) But you know, I've edited several books for fellow authors. And I'm always writing in the margin-is it hot? Cold? Raining? Remember, it's July. Or something like that. So we miss it when it's missing.

RO: I'm still cold...maybe I should set my next book in the Virgin Islands instead of Connecticut.

11 comments:

Lisa said...

Since your main character is a gardener and your setting is New England, I can imagine lots of seamless opportunities to incorporate weather. When it's done well, I do love to know what's happening with the weather. I can imagine endless scenarios where your heroine has to rush to a patio to try and save container-grown heirloom tomatoes from a sudden spring hail storm (and notices something suspicious at the neighbor's), or where she frowns at the state of her ________ suffering from the uncharacteristically hot, dry July (and wonders why the heat was turned on at a murder victim's house at that time of year) or she's delighted she finished planting her _________ just before the perfect afternoon thundershowers roll in, or she's annoyed she misjudged the sudden thaw and didn't take time to (whatever you do to save early blooming flowers) before the temperature dropped again. Between the endless variety of flowers and types of New England weather, I would imagine you will have countless chances to use both in a completely natural, integrated fashion. I'm looking forward to seeing how you'll do it!

Rosemary Harris said...

Wow..all great ideas. Since the book I've been working has been moved from Book Two to Book Four, I have to start from scratch today and may take some inspiration from your comment...
Thanks!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Hank, just for the record, my father does watch the weather channel--then calls me to tell me what the weather is where I live, two time zones away. Like I can't look out the wndow or walk out the door. And, watch out if it's not raining when he says it is. . .

I like referencing the weather to set the scene or time frame. You know, have my character stare out the window when she's trying not to listen to what her ex is yapping at her about.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Yes, Judy, and thinking about your father, it was very sweet. He watches the weather--but he's thinking about you.
It makes him feel closer to you. And maybe that's the thing about the weather--we've all experienced it--oh, rain--and so it's a connection, among strangers, but all the more among people who know and love each other.
So, a main character in a book we love--we connect if he or she is cold, or wet, or feels the warm sun on their face.
As for you, Lisa--want to come over and help me plot my book 3, Air Time??
It wasn't supposed to have to do with weather, but hey, the title sure works!

Lisa said...

Maybe if I can learn to spell plot, I can learn to start asking some intelligent questions! You ladies are all incredible and I feel lucky to be able to read about your experiences and hopefully, learn from them.

The Writers' Group said...

Another great post. Gardening and weather each have a role in my novel as well. I'm with Hank in that I always crave a sense of place, atmosphere -- and weather absolutely helps set the scene --in the books I read. In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the cold was as much an appendage as the gun The Man carried.

Amy

Trish Ryan said...

I'm with Elmore...unless the weather is central to the scene, I don't really want to know. But this might be because I grew up in Maine and it felt like my teen-age social life always hinged on what the guy on Channel 6 said :)

Susannah said...

Handled deftly, I think weather can be a terrific assist to character and situation. The gusty wind that invigorates one character may cause another to wrap his coat more tightly around himself,to regret his lost belt, to duck his head against the battering. We know more about these two walking together in the wind -- one kiting, the other turtling -- than they need to tell us about themselves.

I see weather used a lot to escalate peril in mystery/thrillers, and that can be done brilliantly, but I like the smaller variations, too. The sensitives with their emotions on edge, who feel a kindred plummet with the barometric pressure and have to stop listening to Mahler, or the CHF patients, gawping for air when the relative humidity is high -- both are an extension of their environment, and its changes necessarily change them. The story gets richer.

I'm not a mystery writer, nor am I reader that likes to read weather narrative just for weather's sake (it's my least-favorite small talk, as well), but I do enjoy weather integrated into scene. Notice everything, Henry James recommends in The Art of Fiction. As you suggest here, it's not divorce we need from weather in story, it's a better marriage.

And I can vouch that the scent of human decomposition, borne by light breeze on an idyllic spring morning, is so singular a scent that it will, in the moment of recognition, shade the sun. And that a little breeze in the hair of the deceased does seem very like breathing, making me twitch for a carotid every time, and that a body in a field, less than one day down, will be the same color as the rain shower that falls over it.

In these kinds of instance, weather co-creates meaning. I'm less interested in a dark and stormy night on its own, than I am in a protagonist who struggles to catch his unnerved cat during the worst of it -- and ends up triumphant on the dirty floor of his kitchen, trembling for a beer, his face cross-hatched by claws.

Mary said...

What a gorgeous quote. I've been meaning to reread "To Kill a Mockingbird" since I watched the movie Capote. You've re-inspired me.

Weather - as you point out - is especially difficult to write in a fresh but subtle manner.

You may not want to start a book with it, but it seems to work well as a chapter starter once you're already hooked in and want to stay oriented.

I love this chapter beginning in Hallie's book "Delusion":

"The next day was a gorgeous New England spring day, a blip between the freeze-dry of winter and the hot-steam of summer. If you blinked, you'd miss it."

Then she writes another weather/setting paragraph that includes the felicitous phrase "a splash of red and yellow tulips..."

Way to go.

Mary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary said...

What a gorgeous quote. I've been meaning to reread "To Kill a Mockingbird" since I watched the movie Capote. You've re-inspired me.

Weather - as you point out - is especially difficult to write in a fresh but subtle manner.

Writers may not want to start a book with it, but it seems to work well as a chapter starter once the reader is already hooked and needs to stay oriented.

I love this chapter beginning in Hallie's book "Delusion":

"The next day was a gorgeous New England spring day, a blip between the freeze-dry of winter and the hot-steam of summer. If you blinked, you'd miss it."

Then she writes another weather/setting paragraph that includes the felicitous phrase "a splash of red and yellow tulips..."

Way to go.