Thursday, September 1, 2022

Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches, by Catriona

 Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood? Talk to us about meteorology.

Elmore Leonard famously (in these circles) offered "Never open with the weather" as number one of ten good-writing rules. But if I've got to choose between Elmore Leonard and Shakespeare, it's going to be Stratford Willie all the way.

I've published thirty-one novels and I was pretty sure I must have opened with the weather in quite a few of them. Because I most certainly do use it to signify mood, atmosphere and tone, whether it's the relelentless pressing misery of Scottish cold and wet in a psychological thriller where people's lives are in disarray, or the relentless pressing misery of Calfornia heat and drought in a Last Ditch Motel comedy. And where better to establish mood and tone than right at the start?

Funnily enough though I just padded over to my bookshelf to check and it turns out that I've never opened a domestic suspense with any of the many types of dreich Scottish weather and I've never kicked off a Last Ditch with baking west-coast heat.

But four out of fifteen Dandy Gilver historical detective stories open in an non-Elmore-compliant fashion, one way or another. I resisted it for the first three - I was already aware of it as a cliche and a potential source of mirth and mocking - but maybe I was feeling ebullient by the time I was writing book four, THE WINTER GROUND.

Not only does chapter one start with a brisk review of three seasons' weather in Perthshire, but that comes after - brace yourselves - a prologue. ("No prologues" is EL's rule two.) However, it's character rather than atmosphere that's addressed: the feelings of an Englishwoman who has tholed Scottish weather for decades of married life and only grows more homesick with every serving of horizontal hailstones.

Then I seem to have got a hold of myself again. Books five to twelve open with dogs, parties, letters at breakfast, screams in the night, a burning convent . . . the usual stuff. Recently, however, I think I've given up. 

Book thirteen, A STEP SO GRAVE, has got a prolgue that begins "Snow lay, faint as feathers . . ." and bangs on a bit about how each flake landing on the one below makes lace, but the earlier snow underneath is blue and shadowed, and the even earlier stuff below that is heavy and wet in the darkness. I would say this weather description is doing some of the work of creating a mood, wouldn't you? Some, but not all: the  second paragraph concerns the spreading pink stain from where someone's lying under all that snow with a shovel in their neck. 

Book fourteen, THE TURNING TIDE, sees Dandy and Alec standing on a beach on a sunny day in July with "a fresh breeze whipping up wavelets and sending scraps of dry seaweed scudding over the sand". Here again though, it's character rather than mood. The first words of the book are Dandy saying, "I don't know, Alec.  It's hardly the Riviera."

THE MIRROR DANCE, the latest, is back to Dandy hankering for home and hating Scotland for the way the soft August Sunday afternoons of her youth (or at least her rose-tinted memory) have been replaced by squally damp chill and a lit fire that offers more smoke than warmth since the logs aren't really ready.

Is it realistic to have a character still sulky about the weather in a place she's lived for years on end because of who she's married to? Undoubtedly. I moved to California when my husband got a job here and half an hour ago, opening the door to take some kitchen scraps to the compost heap, I said "Oh for God's sake!" to no one at all, unless you count the cat, because it's well over a hundred degrees and I couldn't go outside sans flip-flops without burning the soles of my feet.

I always say I'm not Dandy but we overlap, clearly. 



Gabriel Valjan said...

So, you're a repeat offender on multiple counts? Rules are meant to be broken and even Dutch admitted as much. Prologues are tricky monsters. Edwin Hill's THE SECRETS WE SHARE tricked me, as in a prologue that I didn't realize it was one until I turned the page to the next chapter. Oh, and cats are witnesses to numerous crimes, and wilful co-conspirators, but they require (like readers) payoffs.

Catriona McPherson said...

I'm reading that right now and I think you're right - because it doesn't say "prologue" we come at it in a different mood. If a novel's opening *does* say "prologue" I like it to be one or at most two pages long. Same as poetry; I don't like turning two pages.

Clea Simon said...

I’m just glad you have at least one prologue that opens with the weather. We will be damned!

Clea Simon said...

Errr… rules be damned!