This morning when I went out to walk the dog, the temperature was 12 degrees. When the breeze came along, it cut. But it’s also dry. When I think about winter I prefer cold and dry to warmer and wet (think snow and ice).
During my walk I often compose sentences to add to whatever I’m working on when I get back to the house, or just because I feel like writing a sentence in my head. This morning the cold held my attention, and I began thinking about how this degree of cold would affect an amateur sleuth hot on someone’s trail. Snowy and cold would make the situation even worse.
Since I live in New England, famous for its winters, most of my mysteries, long or short, are set in pleasant, or at least tolerable, weather—in spring, summer, or fall. Winter poses challenges that my characters don’t have to face, challenges that could change the plot, the direction of the story, the success of the sleuth and the authorities. Perhaps the sleuth has only a few minutes to reach a location to rescue someone, but it’s snowing, the roads are icy, the stop lights not working because of a power failure, the streets impassable in some places. The weather certainly ratchets up the suspense. (Sounds like my drive home from work years ago.)
In a city the sleuth could travel faster and more safely by subway, but at least in my area (Boston), that means a different kind of problem—subway car breakdowns. (To be fair, in Boston subway cars break down in every season.) Or, this could be the start of a story—the subway car stuck in a tunnel. When the car starts up again and makes it to the station, the riders trip over a dead body blocking the exit. Is the killer still on the car, or did that person somehow get off and escape through the tunnel? Will he or she survive in subzero weather underground?
I will admit that when I go about choosing the setting in a warmish season, I’m really thinking about myself—how easy it is to get around, to get things done, to get anywhere I want to go. Winter is a chore for me. And on cold days, though I don’t actually mind them, having grown up in New England, I’m aware of how much effort it takes to make the transition to outdoors—scarf, hat, coat, boots or heavy shoes, mittens, sometimes even a hand warmer for a long walk. But now that I’ve thought up a number of scenarios relying on cold weather, perhaps I’ll make a change.
The weather is going to remain well below freezing for the next day or two, and then warm up. That gives me plenty of time to work out the basic plot of a story set in bitter cold weather, with all the worries and challenges that come with that setting. And I get to write the story while I’m warm inside.
As we head into Christmas, I hope all of you reading this are warm inside with your families and friends, good food, and a pet if you have one, enjoying the season and the freedom to write whatever you want.