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.
4 thoughts on “Let’s talk about the weather”
A few years ago I interviewed Anne Hillerman on my blog and asked her why she chose to set two of her books in June in New Mexico. It’s fire season: hot and windy, and the rainy season hasn’t started yet. She said that was why–the suspense, the oppressive feeling of waiting for relief. I have only set one of my books in New Mexico’s windy spring, but I plan to do it again. It adds a level of background tension and irritation. My most recent book, Death Omen, takes place primarily in Truth or Consequences’ weirdly perfect fall season, which is pretty much that odd phenomenon you described, where the sky is always clear and the sun is always shining and the temperature is just right. No role for weather there other than as a contrast to the events. I used a late-season hurricane in Snake Face, though, affecting my characters’ east coast road trip. And by the way, I’ve been that outdoor theater actor enduring all sorts of weather (and wasps and bees occasionally), everything but lightning–we’d cancel for that. I once slipped on a wet stage and fell face down during a farce. The audience loved it, laughing and applauding at the amazingly realistic crash. I got up and kept going. Only I and the actor portraying the man I had to get out of my bedroom before my husband came home knew it wasn’t part of the blocking. I feel for your character! I had a wasp up my sleeve once, too. Feel free to use that in your book.
On with the show! Actors put up with everything, don’t they? Thanks for stopping by. I use a hot, humid Midwest summer in my first book. The character is sweating outside, then goes indoors to freezing cold A/C. The heat finally breaks at the end when the killer is caught.
I love your examples! And you’re absolutely right, it’s not that you shouldn’t write about the weather — that can be so important — just not a weather report at the beginning of the story. Well said!
Hi Jane, thanks for your comments. The important thing is to avoid the “information dump,” whether it’s the backstory or the climate.
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