by Sheila Connolly
The Wickeds were talking here last week about fall and how we feel about it. To me, September feels like a time of beginnings (can you tell I liked school?). Some people say it’s a time of endings, since summer is over and the leaves on the trees are dying. But how gloriously they go out, in a blaze of color!
My Orchard Mysteries are released in October (I didn’t ask, but it just sort of happened that way), which is the heart of the apple harvest season. That works well, at least as a reminder to myself (calendar for October: new book coming! New manuscript due!). But in the books the seasons change and it isn’t always autumn. The next book, A Gala Event, takes place in December, as does the one coming out next year, which doesn’t have a name yet. My protagonists actually leave Granford for a short time—but they can only because the harvest is over and there’s nothing to do in the orchard.
As writers we often talk about setting as a character in our books, and it’s true that where you set a story had a real impact on the story itself. Is the place mountainous or flat? Wet or dry? Urban or rural? Crowded or empty?
But the time of year also makes a difference. I just finished Craig Johnson’s 2014 book Any Other Name (signed by him when he was our Guest of Honor at Crime Bake last year), which is set at the end of December in Wyoming. I’ve never been to Wyoming, and I never gave much thought to snow in the West, but Johnson certainly makes the weather there very real, and he never lets you ignore it. The snow is definitely a character in the story, and figures in everything from knocking the snow off a hat to trying to catch a plane between storms.
The impact of seasons on an urban setting, which I use in my Museum Mysteries, also matters. Bostonians know what havoc a lot of snow can wreak on rail travel, but in the Philadelphia area trains are often slowed by “leaves on the tracks” in fall: they make the tracks slippery, so speed is reduced. For that matter, extreme and prolonged heat in summer can warp the tracks, or can cause the overhead electrical connections to sag dangerously, both of which can be serious problems. Summer brings thunderstorms, tornadoes (yes, even Philadelphia gets the occasional tornado), torrential rains—or droughts. And you don’t know about the, uh, pungent blasts of hot air emerging from the city subway entrances unless you’ve walked by them in summer.
Can you imagine reading a book (or writing one) where the weather never changes? Wouldn’t that feel like a stage set to you, where the characters just walk through their roles, ignoring their surroundings? With the seasons, visibility changes, smells change, the ability of your characters to get from one place to another changes—and you’ve got to remember to put coats and gloves and scarves on people. I’m thinking of setting my next Irish mystery during a blizzard that leaves everyone stranded wherever they are—in my case, in the pub, of course. Blizzards are rare in Ireland, but they do happen, and given the number of small, half-paved lanes in most of the country, it doesn’t take much snow to bring everything there to a halt.
Thousands of years ago, prehistoric tribes in Europe built monuments that followed the courses of the sun and the moon. It gave them hope, and reassurance that the world would keep moving forward. There was an order to the universe. And so should the seasons change in our books, moving steadily forward, marked by the changing weather.
How do you feel about weather in a book? Is it important to the story, or is it a distraction?