It was a dark and stormy night.
Laugh, if you must, at this classic example of bad writing, but I sort of like it. For me, nothing creates atmosphere as effectively as weather. I always appreciate a writer who knows how to use the natural world to enhance a novel, and I’m disappointed when a writer’s story seems to take place in a hermetically sealed chamber, with no mention of what might be going on outside. Characters who never experience weather are not living in a world I recognize.
The first question I ask myself when I begin planning a book is, What season is it? I need to know the temperature, the appearance, the feel of the world my characters will move through. When I say that I want to make my characters sweat or shiver, I mean it literally.
Maybe I’m hyper-aware of weather because I’ve lived for many years in the Washington, DC, area, where residents seem absolutely obsessed with what Mother Nature is up to at all times. In summer it’s the tropical heat, the humidity, the violent thunderstorms that leave tens of thousands without electricity -- or, alternatively, the drought that leaves dead lawns and gardens in its wake. In winter, we're terrified that it might start snowing at any moment. If a single flake wafts from the heavens, all the schools close and half a million federal workers claim liberal leave and head for home. Everybody knows that once our streets are covered with snow, they’re going to stay that way for a while. A few inches of white stuff can trap people in their homes for days as they wait in vain for a plow to rescue them. People who spent the first thirty years of their lives in Maine somehow forget how to deal with snow when they move to Washington, and everyone is endlessly amazed by the inability of the District and surrounding counties to clear the streets in a timely manner.
Having grown up in the south, I’ve never seen the necessity for winter, and I despise snow only slightly less than ice storms. (That's my garden in the photo above.) When I wanted to create a menacing atmosphere in my second book, Disturbing the Dead, snow was the obvious weather choice. The book begins in a snowstorm, as Deputy Tom Bridger and his men are collecting the scattered bones of a missing woman on a southwestern Virginia mountaintop. Snow is ever-present in the book, cold on the skin and slippery underfoot, wrapping this little world in a veil of white. But my characters are not wimpy Washingtonians. They’re mountain people, and for them life goes on despite the weather -- until it’s brought to an end by a bullet or knife.
My first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, takes place in the Washington area during a typically blistering summer. The story begins with a thunderstorm, and a long-ago storm plays a key role in the plot, but as the story goes on drought sets in. Although I don’t make a big point of the weather in that book, the increasingly parched landscape, the shriveling vegetation along the roads, mirror my character Rachel’s desperation and the absence of emotional nourishment in the home she shares with her sister and her manipulative mother.
Some writers are brilliant in their use of weather to create atmosphere. Edna Buchanan can always make me feel the stifling heat and humidity of Miami. Giles Blunt’s Ontario in winter chills me to the bone. Julia Spencer-Fleming is also adept at building tension and a sense of danger with the use of weather, and I would read Dana Stabenow’s Alaska mysteries and James Lee Burke’s Louisiana mysteries for the weather alone. In Breathtaker, Alice Blanchard created a serial killer who struck only during tornados and used the storms to cover his crimes.
Often, when a book has good characters and a good plot but still seems to lack something, I realize that the missing ingredient is sensory perception of the natural world. So bring on the dark and stormy night, the raging wind and the withering heat. I want to know whether the characters are sunburned or frostbitten, drenched or parched, I want to hear autumn leaves crunching under their feet and see the summer butterflies flitting from flower to flower nearby. Only then will the characters, and the world they inhabit, come alive for me.