Monday, February 23, 2015

Weather as a character

by Joan

As I write this, ice taps the windows and wind batters the chimney cap. I’ve just come in from helping my husband raise the exterior shades on the two-story window and my fingers are still numb. A snowflake icon shows up on my app for tomorrow (or today, as you are reading). No, I’m not in the northeast; I’m in Dallas, where last week it was 75 degrees.

Maryland house, 1991 - 1999
For forty-five winters in Maryland, there was a particular dread I’d feel going into November, knowing that I wouldn’t be warm again until mid March. The jewel-toned October trees would strip naked and stand brittle and grey. The sun would slink away earlier and earlier, sometimes not showing up at all. I shivered constantly, no matter how many sweaters I crawled into. Some years were worse than others, but in my memory the winter scene looks just as it does now: temps in the teens, imminent or piled-up snow, wind that whips chill into your bones. 

Elmore Leonard said, “Never open a book with the weather.” But what if your book features haunting, beating, relentless weather. The problem with writing advice, particularly when it involves the word “never,” is that there are brilliant stories that defy the rules. Beautiful prose, tension, engaging characters; these are the elements which lure readers into a story.  

Kim just reviewed Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains, which takes place during a deadly Kansas blizzard. A while back, Julie reviewed Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise, set in Galveston, Texas, in the weeks leading up to the devastating 1900 hurricane. In Weisgarber's novel, a scandalized woman leaves Ohio to marry a widower in the south Texas town. She’s expecting a fine city house, but instead he leads her to a sweltering, rustic home and a skittish child. Her new husband’s housekeeper doesn’t trust her and is fiercely loyal to the memory of his late wife, even as she harbors her own feelings for him. When the hurricane arrives, her husband goes out to help neighbors and the animals, and she is left to protect his boy from the powerful storm that literally rips apart their house. It’s the weather that destroys everything, yet it also bonds them. 

In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” weather is the story. Over the course of a day, a man attempts to walk over thirty miles of Canada’s Yukon trail to meet his boys by suppertime, despite an old trapper’s warnings. It’s seventy-five below freezing, snow as far as he can see, and he’s carrying nothing more than bacon-stuffed biscuits, nuzzled against his skin to keep from freezing. With only his husky for company, he is oddly confident. Both his and the dog’s beards have turned into crystal muzzles from the moisture of their warm breath. Soon the man’s cheek bones and nose are frozen, and his hands and feet are beginning to numb. The spruce under which he attempts to light a fire is so weighted with snow, its branches cause an avalanche. In wonderful foreshadowing by London, the man feeds the fire “with twigs the size of his finger” and “branches the size of his wrist.”

As I write my current story, I’m looking for places to introduce weather into an already dangerous climate: The Depression, prohibition, divorce, poverty. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe, warm and dry, reading or writing a book with all the right elements.

1 comment:

  1. Joan, thank you so much for including The Promise in this wonderful post. I'm always baffled when weather isn't a factor in novels, and you'll find a place for it in your story. Imagine being poor and not able to afford a winter coat. Imagine not being able to buy snow boots for your children or unable to buy coal to heat the house. Weather can drive motive.

    As luck would have it, I'm in Utah's canyon country researching the next novel that takes place in 1887 during a blizzard. It snowed while I'm here and believe me, it impacts behavior. Brrr.....

    Best of luck, Joan!


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