Monday, January 16, 2012

Weather or Not

by Jemi Fraser

As a young reader, I didn't really notice the weather in the stories I read. For me, reading was all about the characters, not the descriptions or the settings.

Then I read Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf and A Whale for the Killing - then so many more of his books. That's when I noticed weather can be more than an inanimate background setting. It can be as powerful as the characters themselves. In some cases, the weather becomes a character.

Here in Northern Ontario in January, snow is always on our minds. We know how to shovel it, drive in it, swear at it, play in it, differentiate between the different types, and when it's perfect snowman & snowball making weather. So, right now, the main characters in my current story are travelling through some mountains and encountering various types of snow conditions. Little do they know there's a major snowstorm headed their way and they're going to be trapped.


I can handle that. I know exactly how the snow will fall, what the temperature needs to be, how the wind will swirl, how it feels to breathe in a blizzard, what the effects of so much snow will be on travel, survival tips, what NOT to do, how to handle the loss of power in the cold and the emotional impact of it all. I even think I can do it all without using a single cliche!

But hurricanes? Tornadoes? Tsunamis? Desert heat?

Probably not yet. I can rely on my imagination, research and conversations with people who've experienced these things, but for me, it's not the same. If I was a writer who used more description, maybe then. But right now, I don't feel I have the expertise with that style of writing or with those weather conditions to pull it off. Hopefully with more practice at including description, I'll be able to handle it.

How about you? Are you comfortable writing about the weather you don't know well?

45 comments:

Yvonne Osborne said...

Through extensive research and watching Platoon and The Deerslayer and Apocalypse Now, over and over while listening to The End, and then working up an intentional sweat in the garden's August heat, bandanna around my head to keep the sweat from dripping in my eyes, I think I got close to the feel of the tropical climate in the Southeast Asian setting where my first novel sidetracked me.

So, yes, I think it's possible to write well about weather you aren't personally familiar with, and I bet you can do it, if your character must go there. This is not to say that I'm not more comfortable writing about snowstorms and the bracing cold of a subzero morning. The wind whistling around the house and rattling the windows while the furnace hums, trying to keep up.

This is a good question with which to start my day. Where's the coffee?

Old Kitty said...

I think I take creative licence with any weather! I rely on what I see on the telly for instance for weather I'm not truly familiar with like experiencing hurricanes!

Take care
x

Jemi Fraser said...

Yvonne - now THAT's what I call great research skills! I could probably do a pretty good job on high heat with humidity, but I can't imagine high heat without humidity - I'd like to experience that some day :)

Old Kitty - I probably will too - but I'd like to get better at writing description before I go in that direction! :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'm not as comfortable, no. So I set my stories in the hot South! But someday I'll have to try and experiment.

JeffO said...

Hmm. Since I haven't written about unfamiliar weather, maybe I'm not comfortable with it....

(Runs off to write about the desert)

Stephen Tremp said...

I love writing weather into my stories. My series begins in the dead of winter mid-February and extends out into April. So lots of snow, ice storms, freezing cold, thunder storms, and such. I think weather helps develop the setting and writers who do not use it are missing out.

cleemckenzie said...

I first "noticed" weather in a story when I read To Build a Fire. That was one terrifying bit of weather, I tell you. When the character's spit cracked in mid air and he realized he'd soon freeze, I never took the cold lightly again.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My first book was set in space, so no weather there! But the second one took place on a desert planet in late summer. Fortunately, I used to live in the desert, so that really helped.
And wish we had snow...

Laura Marcella said...

That's a good question! I hadn't really thought about it. The worst seasonal weather I've written are what I've experienced regularly: blizzards, heat waves, severe thunder/lightning storms.

I have relatives who've experienced major hurricanes and tornados and earthquakes, so I could always pick their brains if I need that info.

LD Masterson said...

I've have some experience with most kinds of weather, enough to paint a realistic backdrop, but if I needed extreme conditions as a critical part of my story, I'd have to go to someone for help.

Christopher Hudson said...

One of the benefits of living in Michigan is that I get to experience it all ... and often in one day.

Medeia Sharif said...

I don't know if I'd be comfortable writing about weather I don't know about. I've experienced both cold and hot weather, but I haven't lived through tsunamis, tornadoes, and desert heat. I would have to do a lot of research.

Rosalind Adam said...

I know this is different but your blog reminded me of the introduction to a course on short story writing that I once attended. The tutor said, "Don't start your story with a description of the weather. It'll get thrown straight on the rejection pile."

I'm glad to say that I wouldn't be able to write about being trapped in a snow storm. I can do walking in cold drizzly rain quite well though.

Seriously, I don't find it easy to write successfully about the weather. It's something I need to work on.

Jemi Fraser said...

Elizabeth - exactly! So far, my stories have been set in similar climates to my own! :)

Jeff - let me know how that desert writing goes! It's the dry heat part that I don't think I could pull off! :)

Stephen - that's why I'm trying to include it more often. I definitely am a sparse writer, but I want those hints of weather to create more realism!

Lee - there's a similar scene in Hatchet where the MC hears the trees snapping because of the cold - he first thinks it's a gun! :)

Alex - I've played around with the 'no weather' of space too - it's fun! And now I know who to turn to when I need desert expertise!

Jemi Fraser said...

Laura - I tend to stick with what I know too. It's 'nice' to have those folks in your life who've experienced those terrifying weather attacks - I hope everyone is okay!

Linda - living in Northern Ontario, we get a pretty wide range too - but there are a few I don't have a clue how they'd make me feel!

Chris - exactly! We've got similar conditions to Michigan so I know exactly what you mean! :)

Medeia - research would be key for me too. I love research and I think I can get a lot out of it, but I really, really like to experience things first hand!

Rosalind - me too! I do have experience with those snow storms and with those drizzly, rainy days. But not some other ones! And good advice on NOT starting with weather - no "dark and stormy nights"! :)

Tiana Smith said...

I think I can handle most of the colder weather conditions (snow, rain, swamps, etc.) but the warmer stuff like deserts? Yeah, not so much. Same with ocean-front climates. I'll have to do a lot of research for this though, since my book is going to involve a sea journey. I have NO IDEA how ships deal with storms ...

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I try to only use conditions I feel I have a handle on. In the past year in my part of the world, we've been wet, really, really wet.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've been through everything but a tsunamis! Never put more than desert heat and snow storms in my writing though.

Jemi Fraser said...

Tiana - that sounds like fun research! I bet you find out all kinds of fun stuff! :)

Susan - me too! The last year has been wet - seems like so much rain compared to normal. Not overly much snow yet though! We'll see!

Diane - You've been in a lot of places then! I know there are some conditions I'd need to know a lot more about before I wrote about them :)

Alleged Author said...

I've seen all weather because I've moved so much. Though natural disasters are a bit harder for me to imagine.

Jemi Fraser said...

Alleged - they really are tough! With the 4 seasons we get here, I feel good with a lot of it, but the other stuff... not so much :)

Jean Oram said...

That settles it. We need to quit this Canadian winter stuff and head out to some hot, hot place and learn what it feels like to be too hot to move and how good that cold drink is afterwards. You with me? ;)

But, um, can we skip the natural disasters?? Yipes.

And that is very cool that the weather in your story is being a character and is also possibly part of the conflict/barrier to goals in some way?

Jemi Fraser said...

Jean - now THERE's a plan! And we can file the trip under research. I'm sure the hubbies will approve!!!! Right??

I'm hoping the weather adds a rather large barrier ... to a lot of things :)

Lydia Kang said...

Research, research! That's how I'd do it, but I'd always worry I'd get it wrong.

BTW, I LOVE that book Never Cry Wolf. I read it so many times. We'd always read it when we visited a lake in Ontario for the summer holidays when I was a kid.

Talli Roland said...

Hmm, interesting question! Having lived in so many different places with varying weather, I think I've experienced a lot of extremes. I'm not sure how comfortable I'd be if I hadn't experienced it, though.

Jemi Fraser said...

Lydia - that's how I'd do it too - then try to find someone who lives in that condition and have them check it! Farley Mowat is an incredible writer - Never Cry Wolf is my favourite of his books! :)

Talli - you have had more experience than most, so I'm sure you could pull it off! I'd need a little more help :)

Matt Sinclair said...

For my manuscript that takes place partly in Antarctica, I interviewed people and read a lot. I still think I didn't quite get it right. Describing a "katabatic," is kinda tough when you've never witnessed it.

Jemi Fraser said...

Matt - that would be tough! Research can take you a long way, but sometimes it's just not enough! I bet you've worked it out thought! :)

catherinemjohnson said...

Interesting subject Jemi. I'm so relieved we came to Southern Ontario. As a poet I could probably describe a leaf covered in snow lol. I'm the same as you about writing description. It will come I guess.

Jemi Fraser said...

Thanks Catherine! I'm hoping I'm improving in the description department. It's not an easy process to slide in those descriptions effectively without bogging down the reader :)

TerryLynnJohnson said...

good question! So far, I've been sticking with settings that I know well and love, that's why I want to write about them. Winter is northern Ontario is fascinating, is it not? I love how you've described it in this post! But as for deserts? Tricky! That sounds like a good excuse for a research trip.

Jemi Fraser said...

Terry - we do have the most fascinating winters - so many varieties! :) I love the idea of a research trip - sounds about perfect! :)

Lynn said...

I definitely could not write about tornado chasers even though I did go into the Tornado attraction at Universal Studios. But if you need to know what -50C feels like, I can help you there!

Jemi Fraser said...

Lynn - I'd find it easier to do the -50C than the tornado too! Gotta love living in the north! :)

The Golden Eagle said...

I've never really focused on the weather in my stories, since most of it is Science Fiction and many of the surroundings are artificial. But if I had to be really focused about weather, I'd probably gravitate toward what I'm familiar with; I'm not sure if I could capture extremes well enough!

Jemi Fraser said...

Golden Eagle - I do think most of us stick with what we know well. I've got a sci-fi MG adventure walking around in my head where the alien weather will definitely be a factor. Gotta improve my skills for it before I get to it :)

Jackee said...

I love man against nature stories. I used to be a back country ranger and I think that has helped me get a feel for extreme weather on the body and psyche. Also, I've been in a few natural disasters, so yeah, I think first hand experience really helps.

Thanks for a great post, Jemi!

Jemi Fraser said...

Jackee - they really are fun stories to read ... and to write! You have seen a few horrific weather events in your past. I remember those fire photos you posted a while back. Incredible.

Kari Marie White said...

I never considered how potent a setting and weather can be until I read Shiver. I haven't found a spot to inject a little weather into my WIP yet, but I hope to find a spot soon. Like you, I'll stick with what I know for starters. :)

alice said...

Having grown up in Washington State, I can write about the rain. I now live in utah and know about snow in winter and desert heat in summer. I also lived in South America for a while and can write about hot, humid weather, but for books in other settings I have to rely on research and people who've been there or on my own travels. Writing about the weather is easier for me sometimes that characters.

Jemi Fraser said...

Kari - Shiver is a great example! The weather is such an integral part of the plot and setting in that book - and it's so well done :)

Alice - Wow! You have lots of experiences to help you out there! I think you'd be able to cover a lot of territory from personal experience alone! :)

Leslie Rose said...

I only feel authentic writing about what my senses have experienced. I do have earthquake, fire, tornado, and hurricane on my dance card already. It may be possible that I attract natural disasters.

Jemi Fraser said...

Leslie - wow, you've got quite a few disasters to call on. Lucky from a writer's perspective, but not lucky in real life! I hope you manage to avoid any and all other disasters!

Southpaw said...

I do use weather,seasons too. They can help push characters in any direction, both good and bad.

Jemi Fraser said...

Holly - yes they can! And it can be fun to use the weather to force something to happen - or not happen. :)