By Sally Carpenter
Many writers swear by Elmore Leonard’s list of “10 rules for good writing” as definitive guidelines that must be followed at all times. Rule one is “Never open a book with weather.”
Ooops, I broke that rule in my WIP.
I don’t begin with a weather report per se, but the climate does have an impact on the story. Chapter one opens with an actress, the protagonist, performing in an outdoor theater in the rain. The guests watching can’t enjoy the show because they’re cold and wet. The actors on stage must overcome their own personal discomfort to do their best, as “the show must go on.”
The reader feels empathy for the protag working in such miserable conditions while admiring her professionalism and dedication in putting on a good play despite the obstacles.
Throughout the book we have rain and drizzle off and on as well as a few dry days. Chapter one ends in a thunderstorm in which a dying stranger shows up at the heroine’s front door. OK, using a storm during a scene of high conflict is a bit of a cliché, but in this case it seems to works.
One of the classic conflicts in literature is “humans vs. nature.” Starting a story with bad weather can be a good thing. A tornado triggers the action in one of the most beloved stories and movies of all times, “The Wizard of Oz.” Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, just the threat of a tornado was enough to get me quaking.
My guess is what Leonard was really trying to say was not to start a story with lengthy descriptions of the environment, or waxing lyrical with passages that fail to engage the reader’s interest, such as “With rays of brilliant light, the sun was heating the soft ground, recently moisted with a light rain, while fluffy clouds skipped along through the azure blue sky.”
Of course there’s the favorite opening gambit of “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Good weather, though, can be used as a way to surprise the reader. “As the lovers were merrily strolling through the field, with a gentle wind kissing their cheeks and the sunshine warming their bare arms, they stumbled over a rotting corpse.”
Using weather in a story helps to make it authentic. Many TV shows and movies seem to take place in a biosphere where the weather is always 72 degrees, rain and snow never fall and natural disasters never occur. Can anyone remember the Brady Bunch dressing for inclement weather?
However, an episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” did have a tornado blow out a window in the studio and injure one of the characters (those tornadoes are everywhere!).
Likewise, many cozies are set in a “perfect” world with fantastic mild weather year round. Even Southern California gets rain and chilly temperatures! Granted, the entire grounding of a cozy is a fantasy—an amateur sleuth solving a crime that the police cannot break—yet the lack of any deviation in the weather makes the suspension of disbelief even harder.
Some cozies set in Minnesota do have snow, although I wonder how many include the unpleasant aftermath of slush: partially melted snow that’s dirty and sticky. And how many of these characters try to drive cars sliding around on icy roads or put out their backs while shoveling out their driveways?
Some New England cozies are set in the cooler days of autumn with the colorful foliage, but do the protagonists take time away from their sleuthing to rake leaves or clean debris out the gutters?
Writing a cozy doesn’t require the services of a meteorologist, but the author can add some flavor and realism to the story with a touch of weather.
Please share if you know of any mysteries in which bad weather plays a role in the story.