by Sandra Parshall
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’ve considered weather and seasons in fiction before, and now that I’m preparing to moderate a Malice Domestic panel on the topic, this seems like a good time to revisit a few points.
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 are 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 in one of the outer suburbs, all the schools close and half a million federal workers claim liberal leave and head for home to hunker down. 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 for a plow to rescue them. People who spent the first forty years of their lives in Maine somehow forget how to drive in snow when they move to Washington. Adding to the anxiety is the baffling inability of the District and suburban counties to clear the streets in a timely manner. Several years ago, when we had back-to-back blizzards that dumped three FEET of snow on us… well, there’s a reason the event became known as Snowmageddon.
Having grown up in the south, I’ve never seen any necessity for winter, and I despise snow only slightly less than ice storms. 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 and the shriveling leaves on the trees and 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 their manipulative mother.
Summer also seemed a good choice of season for Broken Places, which brims with hot emotions, and I liked the melancholy of autumn, when so much of the world fades and dies, for Under the Dog Star.
In my latest book, Bleeding Through, early spring's winds and volatile weather, which can make us doubt that summer will ever come, mirror the turmoil of the characters' lives.
Some writers are brilliant in their use of weather to create atmosphere. Edna Buchanan makes me feel the stifling heat and humidity of Miami (the only place outside of India that may be worse in summer than Washington). 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.
The four authors I’ll be working with on the Malice Domestic panel all know how to use the seasons and weather effectively. If you haven’t read them yet, give these books a try: A Broth of Betrayal and A Spoonful of Murder by Connie Archer: A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die (out in June) by Edith Maxwell; Murder by Vegetable by Barbara Graham; Revenge of the Crafty Corpse by Lois Winston. And I hope we'll see you in the audience at Malice.