Monday, August 8, 2022

Whether or Not Weather by Stephen Mack Jones


Do you use weather in your books to create atmosphere or mood?

        Living, as I do, in the “Mitten” state, the physical, mental and spiritual impact of Michigan’s often schizophrenic weather often makes its way into my writing, e.g., Dead of Winter. The seasons here (of which there are truly only three—Fall, Winter and 93-Degrees-with Humidity) have been known to have a profoundly distinctive and predictive effect on a single personality.

        For example, during Michigan’s insufferably long Winter season, my writing tends to take on what I’ve come to call “The Solzhenitsyn Lament” wherein my characters act and react to the incomprehensible cold, the thousand pin-pricks of horizontal supersonic flight of snow and the monotonous gray-scale landscape with muted anger and bitter defeat, only occasionally howling their King Lear-like mad commitment to resist and prevail above the deafening blitz of bone-chilling wind.

        Oh, I’m fine, but my characters do tend to suffer for all the isolation and loneliness winter brings.

        I owe my own healthy winter attitude to having given up on the human species and social interaction on April16, 1983. Ah, what a liberating day that was wherein I fully embraced the expansive comfort, contentment and security of reading, record collecting (Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, etc.) and the occasional promising visit to Blockbuster Video. An Eighties Schwarzenegger movie, a bag of Twizzlers and a packet of microwave popcorn—how could you not feel a distinct joy?

        Spring in Michigan is really just a dreary addendum to Winter: Cold rain and sleet, black ice is still a threat, the occasional snowfall covering ground where tulips and crocuses have prematurely blossomed. During this brief interlude, my characters—filled with hope and gratitude that the harsh winter has finally passed--will often break out cargo shorts, Hawaiian shirts, black ankle socks with luminescent Crocs since the thermometer often struggles up to forty-five. A veritable heatwave heralding the end of the Ice Age.

        After a few days of this, my characters will join other real Michiganders by going back inside as the blink-of-an-eye-suddenly-summer temperatures have skyrocketed into the high-80s and north of 90s with nearly chewable humidity and famished clouds of mosquitos. Few days go by that an “Air Quality Alert” doesn’t pop up on one’s phone. From the air-conditioned inside looking out, Michigan is actually quite lovely. I can think of few states as vibrantly green as Michigan. Even at its hottest and muggiest, it does tend to draw one out of the A/C to a variety of farmer’s markets, outside restaurant dining options, baseball games and neighborhood barbeques. Ice cold beer tastes better in the heat and humidity. Grilled red meat and tangy sauce dance on the palette under a blinding, melanoma-inducing sun. And Michigan’s multitude of lakes, rivers and streams all glisten brightly beneath blue skies ladened with puffy Cumulus clouds, psychologically cooling boaters, fishermen and fisherwomen and seekers of the perfect tan who have pre-scheduled their Mohs Surgery for the end of the season. (Read Lives Laid Away for a taste of unrelenting action during a Michigan summer.)

        I tend to write less during the summer.

        With Michigan’s bright and burning days of Summer I feel an obligation to get out more. To sweat off some of my Winter poundage. Jogging. Investigating invasive species of plants. Singing and dancing beneath the towering kingdom of forest trees. Laughing heartily while riding a bike.

        But that sort of thing is more for the characters I write.

        Not me.

        And even my characters give me a squinty-eyed over-the-shoulder look that says, “Really? Dancing in a forest? So, like, you think that’s my thing? The hell’s the matter with you?”

        Fall in Michigan is actually my favorite, most productive time to write.

        The season doesn’t last very long—maybe a month-and-a-half, two months—but it’s a beauty. Remember all that green I mention earlier? Well, now those greens have turned bright oranges and iridescent reds and varying shades of yellow. Fall in Michigan has a distinctive smell: crisp, like a chilled glass of pinot grigio and Granny Smith apples. Or candy corn with a soup├žon of elementary school bus diesel fumes.

        I often join my characters on fall walks around the neighborhood or one of four nearby parks. We pick up brightly colored fallen leaves, giving them a moment’s pondering and gratitude. We talk about plots and dialog, adventures yet to be formalized and misadventures yet to be realized. I find out what they’re thinking. They already know what I’m thinking, so this is their chance to influence my thoughts one way or the other. We’ve dressed warm, but still appreciate the soft, cool breeze on our faces, the dappled receding sunlight sparkling on a stream. The smell of damp, black earth and the rustle of multicolored leaves above us.

        “Why is a dead man from Chile laying under that tree over there?” a character will finally say.

        “Nice suit, though,” someone else will reply.

        And that’s when I know it's time to go home, open my laptop and find out why, on a cool fall day, there’s a nicely dressed dead man from Chile laying under a brightly colored oak tree in a Michigan park.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

You've turned me off Michigan except for those few glorious autumn weeks, which might even make finding a dead man under a flaming red and orange tree bearable!