Thursday, June 06, 2013

Let's Talk About the Weather

I've reached the middle of my work-in-progress. Perhaps you've heard the E.L. Doctorow quote about plot: "A plot is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far ahead as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way."

That's all very well and good until you get to the middle of the trip and the road branches out in six different directions, and you don't know which one will get you to where you want to go in the most efficient manner. Sometimes I end up trying them all. I comfort myself with the thought that I get this feeling in the middle of every book I write and thus far I've always managed to find my way out of the woods. And it's seldom the way I expected. It's usually better.

The action in this book is based around the aftermath of a tornado. The timing is creepy, for I had just finished the twister scene when the storm hit Moore, Oklahoma. Or maybe that wasn't such odd timing after all, because you can't write a long series set in Oklahoma without eventually writing about the weather. Not if you want to be realistic, because living in Oklahoma means living with the possibility of bad storms.

Writing teachers warn that one should never begin a book with a weather report, and I am always conscious of that bit of writerly folk wisdom every time I do it. I have managed to include a weather report of some sort in the beginnings of all the Alafair Tucker books I’ve written thus far. In fact, weather plays an important role in all my writing.

It would seem unnatural to me if it didn’t. I grew up in a place where the state of the weather looms large in everyone's life, every day of every year. Oklahoma is smack in the middle of the Great Plains, where, as the old saw goes, there’s nothing to stop the wind between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence. Oklahomans enjoy and/or suffer through every sort of weather known to nature, and in short order, too. A February day of 15 degrees Fahrenheit and 3 inches of ice can be followed by a day of 70 and sunshine. Weather moves through fast and furious, and this is why there are so many violent storms.

How could one write about people who live in such a place, whose lives are lived mostly outdoors, as well, and not write about the weather? The characters are certainly aware of it.

I decide what season it will be before I begin to write an Alafair Tucker book, for the atmosphere will influence the plot - snow to hide a body, a dust devil to lead Alafair to rescue her daughter from a killer, a spring breeze to shower apple blossoms over young lovers, a twister to blow death to your front door.

Until I moved out here to Southern Arizona nearly 30 years ago, where there is no weather other than warm and extra-hot*, I didn’t realize that I had spent thirty-some years of my life in a state of tension and hyper-vigilance. When I began to realize that I didn’t have to check for some life-threatening atmospheric phenomenon every single morning upon arising, I swear to God that the muscles in my shoulders relaxed for the first time in my adult life.


*Yes, I know all about rattling Arizona monsoon storms, flash floods, and dust storms that would choke a horse, not to mention the 115 degree summer days. I have lived here for 30 years, after all. Those are indeed scary and dangerous. The relentless heat ain’t no fun, though the rest of the year is heaven, and as they say out here, you don’t have to shovel sunshine. The others are relatively rare and often rather beautiful. Not like the malevolent threat of a Great Plains event that tracks you, hunts you out, and then tries to come into your house to kill you.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Weather is an extra character in all my books. The first thing Kansans do when we get up in the morning is check the weather report. It determines what we will do the rest of the day.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

Maybe my birthplace, Kansas, is responsible for the importance of weather in my books. My family blew out of Kansas to Oregon when I was nine years old. Oregon has mostly timid weather and beautiful summers, but grey clouds and rain all winter can be depressing.