Tuesday, May 17, 2011

When You Should Include the Weather

There's a famous maxim on book openings: Never start with the weather. That's an excellent pithy reminder for an important point, which is not to set the scene, but to simply write the scene.

But I think it gives weather a bad name.

This weekend we participated in a living history event. For those of you not in the eastern half of the United States, I'll fill you in on the weather we've been having. It rained. A lot. And fierce 30 mph winds pushed a cold front down our throats that dragged temperatures to a range we consider normal for February, not May.

And as we huddled together under our fly (a canvas awning used for protection--albiet meagre--from the elements), it occured to me how very, very important weather is in a setting.

Consider this scene two ways: A group of embattled eighteenth-century soldiers (pick your side) plays a hand of cards, when one of their comrades arrives with a bottle of rum.

Exhibit A:

Taylor dropped the third ace from his hand, smiled broadly, and swept the trick. The last of the afternoon's golden sunlight spread over the weathered cards. The gradient light made the Jack Nick had laid look like it was winking him. Having a good laugh at a poor hand. Nick couldn’t help but laugh as well. Good riddance.

"Good play," Nick said, grudging his opponent's good luck. Three aces in a row, and nothing higher than a ten in his own hand. He leaned back against a tree trunk, stretching his back against the bark.

He shrugged his shoulders out of his regimental coat. Night would bring a chill that would have him wanting the coat back, but for now he could stretch his arms. Jennings appeared from behind the tree. He carried a suspiciously familiar bottle.

“Fancy meeting you boys here,” he said as he uncorked the bottle. He poured a liberal dose into the gil cup he kept in his hat brim while Taylor won the rest of the hand. Jennings passed the cup to Nick. He tossed it back, the fire tracing his throat like the last rays of sunlight tracing the horizon. Tomorrow might bring a skirmish, or a long march, or a rash of dysentery. But today all was well.

OK, now in this scene, the exact same thing happens. Except this time the weather is pretty much what we had this weekend--cold, windy, rain. Exhibit B:

Taylor dropped the third ace from his hand and plucked the cards from the table before the leak in the tarp above them could drop fat droplets of water on them. Nick was glad to see the Jack he had laid disappear quickly—it was a wasted card against Taylor’s hand. A wasted card like this wasted bloody day. Good riddance.

"Good play," Nick said, grudging his opponent's good luck. Three aces in a row, and nothing higher than a ten in his own hand. He flexed his feet inside his shoes, demanding that life flow back into them. They refused.

Taylor led the next hand, and Nick threw something from the low end of the suit, something he didn't care about losing. He huddled his regimental coat closer around him. The wind felt like it was driving daggers through the thick wool. His nose ran, drips quivering above his lip before he wiped them off.

Jennings appeared from behind a sodden tree. He carried a suspiciously familiar bottle.

“Fancy meeting you boys here,” he said as he uncorked the bottle. He poured a few drops into the gil cup he kept in his hat brim while Taylor won the rest of the hand. Jennings passed the cup to Nick. He tossed it back, the fire tracing his throat, warming him as nothing else could at that moment. Funny, he thought, how the only saving grace of a cold night on campaign could come in the form of a gil cup of rum.


So, this was hastily written and poorly edited. But I hope it illustrates my point--weather isn't merely something that's happening in your story. Your characters interact with it and, whether they intend it or not, it affects them. You can use weather to your advantage as a storyteller. If I wanted to give my characters a break, I let them have the weather in the first scene. If I wanted to bring them to the breaking point, I throw the frigid rain their way.

All the more so for stories set in the past. Today we can shut the blinds and put on Netflix and rather thoroughly ignore the weather outdoors (for better or worse). But in the past, people had to contend with the weather on an everyday basis. If it rained, a soldier still had to march. If it was 100 degrees, a farmer still had to work the fields. If it was freezing cold with a biting wind, a milkmaid still had to schlep her buckets outdoors.

So be aware of the weather--if it's sunny, raining, cold, hot. It adds a layer of realism to keep weather consistent with the time of year and the location, and can add a layer of emotional depth and dramatic interest. Not that you have to mention it all the time. Just don't forget it's there. Your characters are like mailmen--snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, shall stay them from the completion of a good plot arc. But it can sure mess with them while they're at it.

5 comments:

pip said...

I really love this post - I hadn't really thought of the weather like that before, I've tried using it to mirror character's feelings but seeing the difference between the two is really miraculous - you're onto something there...

mesmered said...

I adore this post: weather is the frame for a setting, the mirror for a characters's moods and it took your post to remind me. I so often get diverted by dialogue and the next drama on the next line.

PS: Thought I liked the first sample best until I read the second sample and decided that it had the potential for more life...

mesmered said...

I adore this post: weather is the frame for a setting, the mirror for a characters's moods and it took your post to remind me. I so often get diverted by dialogue and the next drama on the next line.

PS: Thought I liked the first sample best until I read the second sample and decided that it had the potential for more life...

Maybelle said...

Mm, good post! I'd never thought much about weather before - I might incorporate it into my writing subconsciously, but I do agree that thinking about weather and how it interacts with plot and character will add more depth. It shouldn't be taken for granted - something I've done in the past.

I liked the examples, too, and how you "snuck" bits about weather into the writing as opposed to describing the weather in one descriptive chunk before the action took place. It does make the writing more natural and fluid. And I agree with the post before me - the second bit made me want to keep reading!

Rowenna said...

Thanks :) Funny that we all seemed to prefer the scene in which they're miserable, ha! But it makes sense--miserable people seem more real sometimes :)

Great point, Maybelle, to weave details in rather than dump them!