Weather … or Not?

Weather … or Not?
Terry Odell

Weather in Novels

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Not long ago, James Scott Bell talked about using setting to create conflict, and I mentioned including weather as well.Weather can be used to set the mood, be a portent of things to come. We attribute human emotions and behavior to the weather with things like whispering winds and sullen clouds. (Points if you know the term for this.)

There are those who say opening a book with the weather violates one of Elmore Leonard’s “rules” but the rest of that rule is often omitted. It says (bold text is mine):

“Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.

For me, the weather should be woven in with the story, not become a “Stop Everything! I need to describe the weather” moment. (Something that bugs me with character descriptions as well.)

It’s a matter of Show, Don’t Tell. I write in Deep POV, and everything needs to be filtered through the characters’ senses.

I grew up in Los Angeles, where we had earthquakes every now and then, and wildfires in the canyons where we lived, but no real “weather.” Winter rains, which created the mudslides from the wildfires was pretty much the extent of things. Seasons were marked by the calendar more than the weather.

Then I moved to south Florida, where there were two seasons: Summer and February 3rd. But there was weather. Hot, humid, and lots of afternoon thunderstorms. In Miami, the difference between daytime high and nighttime low temperatures was a few degrees. Orlando, our next home, was slightly more bearable with a greater difference between day and night.

Now, I live in the mountains of Colorado, where we get four seasons, sometimes irrespective of the calendar.

My point? If I’m reading a book where I’m familiar with the weather, I need to see characters dealing with it. If someone’s racing down the streets of Miami in August, I want to see them sweat. Heck, if they’re meandering down the streets of Miami in August, I want to see them sweat.

Since I started this post by mentioning showing rather than telling, and what my feelings are about using weather, I should show you some examples from my own work.

From Seeing Red, my collection of short stories set in central Florida: The protagonist is James Kirkland, a homicide detective.

Nobody in central Florida survived without some kind of air-conditioning, but Red’s old place had window units that should have been replaced a decade ago. Combined with the loose panes on his jalousie windows, he might as well be living outside. Another reason I didn’t visit often. And with today’s forecast calling for the 90s in both degrees and humidity, not a place I wanted to be.

We agreed to meet back at Central Ops after lunch and spend some quality time with the murder book and white board, thereby avoiding being caught in the daily afternoon thunderstorms. I changed from my department-mandated suit into attire more appropriate for tromping through the non-air conditioned woods, although I did pack the suit into my go bag, where I always kept a change of clothes.

Another approach, and one I feel can be significant, is to show weather that goes against type. Every now and then, it gets cold in central Florida, as in freeze warnings cold. How do your characters deal with that?

Here, Detective Kirkland shows up at a murder scene and is talking to the ME, who speaks first.

“I’d say he’s been dead two, maybe three days, given the cold snap, the open window, and no heat.”

Hardly anyone in central Florida used heat. We had maybe ten days a year where the temperatures dipped below forty. Our luck to be in the midst of three of them, complete with freeze warnings.

The wind chill kicked in and I crossed my arms trying to keep warm. I wore the same slacks and sport coat I’d put on this morning when it was sunny.

Or, from Danger in Deer Ridge, a book set in the Colorado mountains

A gust of wind swirled through the lot. Scattered raindrops painted dots on the asphalt, interspersed with bouncing hail. Elizabeth wrapped her arms around herself. “What happened to the sunshine?”

Grinch gazed at the rapidly darkening skies. “I guess the front got here sooner than expected. They’re talking snow flurries, but it was supposed to hit well after midnight.”

“Snow? It’s June,” Elizabeth said.

“Welcome to the Colorado mountains.” Grinch grinned, grabbed Dylan’s hand and jogged toward his truck. “Where you can get all four seasons in a day.”

From Deadly Puzzles, a Mapleton mystery set in Colorado in February

In the few minutes they’d been talking, the storm had turned violent, the wind and snow threatening to carry them down the hillside as if they were debris in an avalanche. Gordon grabbed for Wardell’s hand. “To my car,” Gordon shouted, his words barely audible above the howling wind. Ice pellets stung as they salted his face.

His Maglite was useless. He shoved it into his parka pocket. Grabbing tree trunks for support with one hand, dragging Wardell with the other, Gordon plodded ahead, one booted foot at a time. Next tree. Hang on. Find your balance.

“Can you see the road?” he shouted, inches from Wardell’s ear.

“No. Snow.”

Once they got closer to the road, his car’s flashers and the flares should guide them. No sense of direction. Only up. Up. Step. Grab. Balance. Breathe. Step. Up. Balance. Breathe. Up. Breathe. Up. Breathe. Up.

A glimmer of blinking red broke through the white curtain. Shifting his direction, Gordon resumed the climb. Why did a quarter of a mile going down turn into two miles going up?

All of these examples show the weather playing an antagonistic role. Why not people picnicking on a sunny day? Enjoying themselves at the beach?

Nothing says you can’t do that, but as our JSB says, we don’t want to see Happy People in Happy Land. There need to be some ants at that picnic, and sand fleas on the beach.

What’s your take on weather in novels? Share examples of what works for you. Or what doesn’t, and why.

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellAvailable Now Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

30 thoughts on “Weather … or Not?

  1. Good morning, Terry. Thanks for addressing a point that frequently arises. I love Leonard but…some rules are made to be broken and this is one of them. I believe, as you pointed out so well by example, that you can describe the weather and introduce a character at the same time while making it all work.

    Have a great day!

    • Thanks, Joe. I’ve never figured out if you stay up late or get up early to be the first to comment. Your words are always appreciated. You have a great day, too. For me, it’s laundry day.

  2. Great post, Terry. I agree. Thanks for educating us on “the rest of Elmore Leonard’s rule.” Living in rural Ohio, where we’ve had more rain than usual, and the ground is soft, and we’ve had three large trees near our house knocked over by storms, you can bet the weather gets our attention and is part of the plot.

    Currently enjoying DEADLY PRODUCTION.

    Thanks for shedding some light on an interesting rule.

  3. So often people quote Leonard’s “rule” as only the first line. I’d forgotten the context (thanks for posting it, Terry). The next line almost contradicts the first! Weather in the opening is perfectly fine if, as Leonard indicates in line 2, the character is reacting to it. And, I would add, is consistent with a tone of disturbance.

    • You’re quite welcome, Jim. It’s all about characters and conflict, isn’t it? And characters are important. The Hubster started reading a book he’d gotten from the library by mistake (right author, wrong book), and I asked him how it was. He was a few pages in and lots of ‘bad stuff’ was happening, all travel related, but he didn’t know who the character was, so he didn’t care that she was having all these issues.

  4. Weather can be used to great advantage in a story, like in the examples you provided. It reminds me of July 9 of this year. While in the grand scheme of things, Arizona weather is relatively calm compared to what some other states deal with, we had one of the worst monsoons I can remember in the 24 years I’ve been here.

    The wind was blowing so hard I was afraid it was going to cave in my windows, so I steered clear of the windows and was propping my body weight against my front door, which I feared was going to be blown in (apartment doors are unfortunately not very sturdy). I can see using that moment in a story someday.

    On the other hand, having teethed on westerns, I’m probably more tolerant of using weather, because at least for me, it’s as much about setting as it is about characters when reading books. But not everybody feels that way. Just like some people don’t much care where they live, as long as they’re living. For me, place matters very very much.

    • Mother Nature can be scary. During our 13 years in Miami, we were never in a hurricane’s path. When we moved to Orlando, Hubster said we didn’t need hurricane shutters on the windows because we were well inland. In 2004, we were in the path of 4 hurricanes. We were lucky that only one came into our neighborhood, and due to the direction of our street, we were spared most damage, but all the trees were down around the corner. Friends a few miles away were stuck in their homes for weeks until the city could deal with removing the fallen old oaks that blocked their streets.
      There are a lot of people in New Orleans suffering the hurricane aftermath right now.

  5. Weather can easily be a part of the conflict. It can also be the difference between a page turner and a toss. The weather needs to match your location. Many years ago I learned that LA does not have thunderstorms. I learned this from a 2 year old who hid under my arm when it sounded like the world was exploding thanks to a mid-west severe storm.

    While reading through I was also reminded of a story that opens with prisoners boarding up windows because of an approaching tornado. West coast writers. If you are extremely lucky a tornado gives you 5 minutes warning. You don’t go to Home Depot, you duck.

  6. I do remember one thunderstorm in Los Angeles. My mom came into our bedroom and woke us up to tell us not to be scared, it was only thunder.
    Early in our days in Miami, we were coming back to our apartment from the complex’s laundry room. There was this black wall of clouds approaching. The Hubster said, “run, it’s going to rain.” We were probably a maximum of 50 yards from our apartment. We didn’t beat the rain.

  7. Thanks for another great “learnin'” post, Terry.

    I never walk out the back door of TKZ without a little something for my tool belt, thanks to y’all. 🙂

  8. Good morning, Terry! I enjoyed reading the excerpts from your books. You do a nice job with antagonistic weather.

    You make a good point about using the weather in our writing. I haven’t done much in that vein to date. However, in my first novel, I introduce the reader to the main character as she’s out running on a trail, dodging patches of snow and puffing out clouds of frosty air.

    • Thanks, Kay. My proudest moment was when someone who lived in Florida but had moved away read Seeing Red and he said it brought back all the misery of Florida’s climate.

      As for your book, what you describe sounds like a start, but if it’s an introduction to your character, you might have worked in a little of how she feels about running in the cold weather. Let us into her head just a little deeper. A phrase or two is all it takes most of the time.

  9. Excellent, Terry. I also use weather as an antagonist force, or to increase the overall mood. Thanks for including the full quote. Not many do, but it’s important distinction.

    • Thanks, Sue. Taking things out of context, or only quoting bits and pieces can change the entire meaning, can’t it?

  10. Leonard is a minimalist which is fine for what he writes, but you’d have a really bad cozy or most other genres if you followed some of those minimalist rules. File this under “Know what your audience wants.”

  11. Howdy, Terry!

    Great post. I love it when authors weave weather into their novels. To me, weather is a character, and I use it all the time. Thunderstorms, blue northers, showers, heat, humidity, and snow storms. These weather events sometimes drives the narrative, sometimes the plot, and is always mentioned at some level. Keep up the good work.


    • Thanks, Reavis. Considering how much time the Hubster spends listening to the weather on the news, checking his weather station, watching the radar, weather seems to be important to people. Kind of hard to avoid–from choosing appropriate clothing to deciding when to run errands, etc.

  12. We have just two seasons here in Lagos, rainy (when it’s rainy) and dry (when it’s all sunny) seasons. No snow, hurricane, tornado or monsoon. I’ve only read them in books or watched them on CNN.

    It’s fascinating to read about all these in fiction, an evidence of the fact that some people experience them. In stories here, you either write about the rain and the sun and their overwhelming nature or nothing at all.

    • Thanks for sharing, Stephen. You might not have seasons, but you still have weather, and the rain or sun can affect your characters. When I toured South Africa, it was just plain hot. Likewise on our trip to the Galapagos. On the equator, there’s only hot and humid. I found it draining, even though I’d lived in Florida for over 30 years. It took a long time to adjust to Florida after living in Los Angeles–and I can’t say I ever adjusted. I simply learned to tolerate. In contrast, moving to Colorado took very little adjusting for me (other than the altitude). I thrive on the dry.

  13. “…[W]e don’t want to see Happy People in Happy Land. There need to be some ants at that picnic, and sand fleas on the beach.”

    Amen. Nothing signals the boredom bus coming like “Then we were served a delicious dinner . . .” or its ilk. Bring on those ants! And a scorpion or two! Let Cousin Larry inquire whether anyone else’s Chicken ala Rasputin tastes a trifle odd, then plant his nose amongst the au gratin mashed potatoes.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Robert.
      Both seasons and time of day can relate to the weather as well, but if it’s not relevant, better to leave it out than have the story look like your ticking check boxes.

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