October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Like a lot of Brits, and many writers, I’m a bit obsessed with the weather. I use the weather quite a lot in my writing. I might have my characters attending a funeral on a beautiful sunny day that seems the opposite of mourning. I might have weddings take place in the rain, surely not an omen for future happiness?
We are often told in writing to draw on all of our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our writing. This creates an almost tangible, believable world for our readers to step into in their imaginations.
The same is true of the weather. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: it helps you to capture a background, a stage or canvas, on which your characters can live out their lives. Weather often overlaps with sensory description – you make your reader feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, or the raindrops on their face, let them hear the thunder or feel the rising humidity or the biting of a north wind every time the cabin door opens and someone struggles to push it shut again.
Where you are writing about a specific time of year, remember that extremes of weather can be used to move a plot forward – an unseasonably warm spring day, or a summer downpour leading to flooding. In Judith Allnatt’s book “A Mile Of River”, the events of the story unfold in Britain’s long drought of 1976, to devastating effect. I can remember snow falling in July once in the 1980s when we lived in Aldershot. Later, five years of living in Queensland – even with its reputation for being damp – made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met was a cab driver from Hull who had been in Aussie for 35 years. He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. So weather can also be part and parcel of who we are, and affect our outlook on life.
I’ve always wanted to use that phrase so often featured in the Peanuts cartoons: ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Originally used by a British writer, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830, it was ridiculed from the off for its ridiculous melodrama. So I haven’t used it. But it’s so tempting! I love storms. during a storm, it’s as if anything could happen and normal rules don’t apply. Likewise we usually think of spring as bright, happy, a time or hope and rebirth…
I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in one book. It necessitated the use of a very large black umbrella. I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of your misery and grief, the heavens refuse to open, and the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of your emotions. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.
An unexpected change in weather can bring about a useful shift, a change in plot direction or the mood of your characters, leading to a new scene or to actions you hadn’t anticipated. Don’t forget too, the weather can be variable. In summer, it can be gloomy, cold and wet. In Britain, you might be surprised to know, we do sometimes have glorious summers. Sometimes we have mild, dry winters.
But don’t overdo it. You don’t need to update your readers on every other page unless it’s a book about climate change, or you’re engaged in rewriting Wuthering Heights. I’m sure they would all have lived happily ever after if they hadn’t lived in such a bleak and lowering spot.