Friday, July 19, 2013

Weather in Crime Fiction

In his oft-quoted "Ten Rules of Writing," Elmore Leonard says, "Never open a book with weather." Readers will skip over paragraphs about the weather "looking for people." This warning about opening with weather is in keeping with Mr. Leonard's 10th Rule -- "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." But on a day when temperatures in the Northeast are expected to climb into the high 90s, I have weather on my mind.

Weather -- good, bad, or indifferent -- seems to be on a lot of our minds most of the time. Lloyds TBS Insurance found that 58% of Brits open a conversation with colleagues or strangers with a complaint about the weather. The average Brit "spends six months of his life talking about weather" (Maclean's, 2010). Want to bet Americans aren't far behind? Weather is our default greeting -- "Hot enough for you?" "Beautiful day, isn't it?" Weather is what we talk about to fill those awkward silences when you find yourself sharing elevator space for five floors with a stranger. 

But if the characters in our books and short stories are talking about the weather, something else had better be happening. Raymond Chandler's opening paragraph in his short story "Red Wind" ( 1938) is an example of weather in the hands of a master. The first line: "There was a desert wind blowing that night." In the next few lines, he sets the mood of the story with a description of "hot dry Santa Anas" that "curl your hair and make your nerves jump" -- and make meek wives consider the effect of sharp knives on their husband's necks.

In this paragraph, Chandler is drawing on what we suspect and researchers study -- that the weather affects our moods and perhaps our behavior. Researchers have looked at matters such as the impact of long hot summers on civil unrest and the impact of the climate on Southern violence. The rest of us suspect -- and often offer as excuse -- that the heat not only wears us down and saps our energy, but makes us more prone to be irritable and short tempered. As researchers note, summers also mean that people are more likely to be out in public places for more hours of the day. More opportunities to come in contact and for conflicts to occur.  

For writers, weather offers the opportunity to make our characters' lives miserable. Starting with physical woes, we can make a character thirsty and light-headed. We can give him aches and pains and allergies. We can put him in a suit and tie on a 90 degree day. We can make her sweat in a hot car in rush-hour traffic. Or, her beautiful sunny day in the park can take a terrifying turn that none of the sun-bathing, Frisbee-playing people around her notice. 

I've been focusing on summer, but any season of the year can make characters miserable and impede their efforts. Blizzard in winter. Freezing temperatures and isolation. Or, weather -- climate -- as a part of a merciless landscape. 

But I'm going to wait until this evening when the sun goes down and the temperature drops a bit before getting back to the book I should be working on. No point in trying to write. I'm suffering from "brain melt". . .maybe an ice cream cone will help. 
Stay cool, everyone!


Irene Bennett Brown said...

Wonderful post with much to think about -- the weather. Thanks!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Irene. I've been thinking a lot about the weather because I working on a book set in 2020. Climate change big time.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, weather is absolutely the way people start conversations in Kansas. We're famous for it.