Blue Sky Thinking

“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

We are often told in fiction-writing to use our senses to bring reality and immediacy into our work, creating texture and believability, creating a world for our reader to step into in their imagination. The weather is perfect for this—you can see it, hear it sometimes, smell it when long-overdue rain hits a scorching pavement, taste it even. Painting the weather into your story works every bit as well as using sensory information: it’s like capturing a background against 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, you 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 to keep out the snow.

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house. All that cold, cold, wet day.”

Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat

When 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, a summer downpour leading to flooding. In Judith Allnatt’s book, A Mile Of River, the events of this claustrophobic 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, down south. So weather is not always season-appropriate. We think of spring as bright, happy, a time of hope and rebirth, but is it really?

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Five years of living in Queensland made me love grey skies and rain. One of the first people we met when we first got to Brisbane was a cab driver originally from Hull who had been out there for 35 years. He told us he hated the sun and longed for drizzle. After five years, I knew exactly where he was coming from. So weather can also be part and parcel of who we are and can affect our outlook on life.

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.”
P.D. James, A Taste for Death

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 melodrama, and is often quoted as an example of the worst opening line for a work of fiction. I haven’t used it. But it’s so tempting! I love storms and it always feels as if anything could happen during a storm. So often in life, the weather provides the counterpoint to our emotions, mood and dramatic events. A funeral seems like it should always take place in bad weather, whilst weddings should be on sunny days—but real life doesn’t always stick to that script.

I have adorned a funeral with pouring rain in my WIP. I always think a large black umbrella is full of possibilities for crime or romance. But sometimes, regardless of our grief, the heavens refuse to open, rain will not descend, but the sun shines, the birds sing, almost in mockery of our sorrow. And this too, can produce a mood that works nicely on paper, inducing your character to take some form of action.

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.)

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat