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?
Looking forward to the next Irish mystery, Sheila! Yes, stranding folks at the pub has wonderful possibilities.
The first time I stayed in a B&B in Ireland, the couple who ran it had four kids. Somehow we ended up talking about a December snowstorm that kept the kids out of school for four days. She said the first couple of days were fun because they were so unusual, but by the end the whole family was going stir-crazy. But the school buses have no chance of making up the hills to make pick-ups when it snows.
BTW, her name is Maura Donovan (yes, the same as my book character–and the wife of my police contact is also Maura Donovan. Names get recycled a lot in Ireland!)
weather is a key element in books, not just cataclysmic events. It sets the mood, creates obstacles, and gives clues about what the characters are wearing. It’s rarely a glorious day under clear blue skies.
I like weather in books. Not endless descriptions, but sentences that anchor you in a time and place–and are consistent in scene to scene, or if they change, it’s noticed. Writing about coastal Maine as I do, weather is a big deal. My town is tiny in the off season, much bigger in the summer. My characters jobs and routines change with the season. Of course, my next book is called Fogged Inn, so you might guess that weather plays a role.
I hope readers like weather in books, because I certainly include it. But only if it advances or informs the story.
Of course. In a related way, I take issue with writers who insist on describing what a character puts on when she (usually a she) gets out of bed each morning–unless it’s something like “I thought I’d go for a run before work, so I put on…” or “I needed a boost today, so I wore my favorite red shirt.”
Craig Johnson is a master of using weather! He did it well in his first book too. Changing weather adds to the senses. It’s very interesting about the leaves on the tracks — it’s not something I would have ever thought of as a problem.
I commuted into Philadelphia by rail for years (the R3 line), so I was familiar with all their, uh, excuses. Hard to imagine enough leaves to affect a multi-ton train, but I guess it happens.
I was fascinated by Johnson’s use of snow (not enough to distract me from the plot, though). He doesn’t simply say, “it was snowing again,” but he describes what kind of snow, and how the wind is blowing, and in exactly what way the footing gets slippery. All of which matters to the story.
Looking forward to the next Orchard Mystery. They are one of my favorites, especially since they come out during apple season. I also just started Lets Play Dead which is great so far. You have a way to engage the reader to the characters to the point where one can’t wait to see what happens next.
Thank you! It is interesting to write about such different places, each with their own problems. (And I did work in the children’s museum in Philadelphia, which was fun.)
I’ve always used weather in my mysteries, the first in hot summer and the second and third in late fall and late winter. It is a problem, however, to get those coats and scarves and boots on without taking up endless space that doesn’t advance the story. In the Midwest, where my stories are set, weather is ALWAYS a topic of conversation in “real” life.
I think weather in the story is important–it sets the scene in my mind as much as a description of the town and the characters. I agree with Barbara Ross…I don’t want weather to take over the story.
I love weather and really enjoyed it in the last Longmire book as well. I cant wait to see what is going on in your next release as I love the cover. Here in the south the snow isnt as much a problem as the ice and I think that is important. I like to know if the weather is impacting the characters. I mean if they live up north and the book is in the winter, it would seem rather weird not to read about snow, snowplows, snowy roads, cold hands, etc. I think weather plays an important part in a story. And I love your books!!
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