Posted in inspiration, my books, Thoughts, writing inspiration, Writing tips

Weather and Setting

Weather, how it sets the tone or mood of a story…

“But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.” ― Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

“After three days men grow weary, of a wench, a guest, and weather rainy.” ― Benjamin Franklin

My uncle swore it didn’t take three days for fish, guests or bad weather to start to smell. Like old Ben he had a way with words and little patience for fools.

“The storm starts, when the drops start dropping

When the drops stop dropping then the storm starts stopping.” ― Dr. Seuss

With the threat of winter mix looming over eastern North Carolina my thoughts turn to the weather and how it affects the setting of a story whether it’s a book or movie or even a television show. Weather can play an important part and at times feel like one of the characters.

“In Ohio seasons are theatrical. Each one enters like a prima donna, convinced its performance is the reason the world has people in it.” ― Toni Morrison, Beloved

Have you ever opened a book or started a story and immediately felt different? Maybe you were feeling tired and blue, overwhelmed by the holidays and you start reading a story that begins with…

The first snow of the season fell like promises upon the town.

Sunlight glittered off the new fallen snow as Christmas carolers sang on street corners and sidewalk Santas rang their bells.

That tone, mood is much different than say…

She shivered in her too thin coat as the sky darkened and the snow turned to ice burning her skin.

The clouds hung swollen and ominous in the gray sky as the wind shifted bringing with it the promise of freezing rain.

The first two sound happy, promising, maybe a sweet romance or family story, while the others seemed darker, more threatening, like horror or suspense. There is an expectation with each genre that the weather, if referenced will affect the story. If a romance, a snowstorm might force a couple together to get to know each other and come to be attracted to each other. In a mystery, the snowstorm might force suspects together and could result in murder or mayhem. In horror, a snowstorm could be foreboding as victims are forced to be in whatever horrifying situation whether haunted house or a madman’s lair.

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.” ― Carl Reiner

“When all is said and done, the weather and love are the two elements about which one can never be sure.” ― Alice HoffmanHere on Earth

Ignoring the wind and white caps lashing against the side of the ferry, Cole propped his hip against the ship’s rail and watched as the dolphins frolicked in the river. Through his binoculars, he could see the pod clearly. Shivering in his canvas work jacket, he swapped his binoculars for the camera strapped around his neck. He zoomed in on the sea mammals, thrilled to have caught sight of them on the ferry ride back to Leeward.

First paragraph of Christmas Inn at Teach’s Island

Jeremy kissed her as they came out of the woods and into her yard. Lush green grass surrounded the house in a small patch near the wrap-around porch. The rest of the yard was hard-packed dirt that too often ran to mud, especially during the winter months. When everyone else was having a white Christmas, eastern North Carolina had mud.

Only in My Dreams

Violet stared out the window of the sitting room. Snow floated from the sky in tiny white ice crystals that were often a nuisance. Winter was far from her favorite season, be she supposed the snow was preferable to rain. – The Rogue Who Stole Christmas anthology, The Rake Who Loves Me by Dawn Brower

“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

If these were in the opening paragraphs of a story, it would set a tone and expectation for the rest of the book that may or may not be true. If it’s later in the story, we expect certain things to happen in the upcoming scene. But like the weather, things can change even in fiction, a midnight storm might be frightening and sleep-depriving, but the morning might dawn clear and sunny.

Writers have used weather to set the tone of stories throughout the ages. It’s not just books but movies and television also depend on the weather to set the mood of a piece. Think about the beginning of the movie Twister, it starts with a tornado, yes that’s what the movie is about but while the tornado looks ominous, the reaction of the actors is joyous, celebratory. In another familiar movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is trying to get home before the tornado. She is worried, frightened, the beginning of the movie is in black and white with lots of swirling dust.

The weather can also be used to fool you into a false sense of well-being.

The beautiful summer night just before Jaws bites her first victim.

Christmas in Los Angeles, very different than the weather in New York, Die Hard.

When we think of weather, especially in stories, we usually think of the extremes: snowstorms, hurricanes, tsunamis, tornados, but it is also the seasons that have certain expectations. Autumn in the southern states can be a relief from the intense heat, or Indian Summer when the heat returns with an oppression that steals your energy and joy.

Weather can be used to describe something else, making something unfamiliar more relatable.

“They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!” ― Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain

“It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” ― Dave Barry

“Summer in the deep South is not only a season, a climate, it’s a dimension. Floating in it, one must be either proud or submerged.” ― Eugene Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim

“It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.” ― P.D. James, A Taste for Death

“The month of August had turned into a griddle where the days just lay there and sizzled.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

The Pamlico river, at least down near Bond and South Creeks was usually placid. It was only out in the sound nearer to the Atlantic that you had the strong currents but with the wind and tide fighting against her along with the torrent of rain and bouts of lightning, Roxanne was no longer sure she was swimming in the right direction or even how long she’d been in the water. She was cold, exhausted and was starting to cramp. The water had cooled as night fell and the rain had lowered the temperature even more. Her limbs were starting to feel heavy. She was afraid to flag down a motorboat for fear she’d unwittingly fall prey to the bikers. Not that she’d heard anyone in several hours. Those who’d been on the river when the storm started had long since headed to shore.

Roxy’s Betrayal

What is more powerful? The beautiful, sunny day or starry night that turns deadly or the foreshadowing of something bad with a storm or fog?

They say it’s good luck to have rain on your wedding. Does that mean a sunny, beautiful wedding day is foreboding? We often think of cloudy skies, fog and rain for funerals but in fiction as in life that isn’t always so. What if a beloved is laid to rest on the most beautiful day of the year? What would that represent to the reader? To the characters?

I could not cry, there wasn’t even a cloud in the sky. Not even God was crying the day we laid Aunt Lettie to rest.

How could the sun be shining? How could the day be so perfect and bright? A day this perfect wasn’t for funerals, it was for fishing or flying kites in the park, but my Joey, my baby would never fly a kite. He’d never learn to fish. The sun shouldn’t be shining. It will never shine for me again.

Okay that may have been a bit melodramatic, but you can feel the story amid the setting, the weather.

“With Dante gone, time seemed to stand still around me; the mornings just as cloudy and dark as the evenings, as if the sun had never decided to rise. There was no wind, like the world was holding its breath along with me, waiting for him to return.” ― Yvonne Woon , Life Eternal

“Don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation.” ― Kim Hubbard

Share some of your weather-related story bites, your own or some of your favorites. Are they first pages or somewhere else in the book?   

Posted in inspiration, Thoughts, writing inspiration

Using Sense and Setting

This was first posted on Pamlico Writers’ Group website, July 11, 2017,

The Pamlico Writers have been posting picture writing prompts. Many of these prompts are atmospheric. The setting or scenery is part of the prompt. In one picture we had a night time view of a house in the water, in the most recent a lonely road with storm clouds looming.

How important is weather and setting to your stories. How do you describe these conditions? When I think of a rain storm it is the smell of rain that comes to mind. The feel of electricity in the air that can make the hair on your arms stand up. The smell of ozone. Living on the water, there is also the changes in the weight of the air. When storms threaten, the air becomes heavy with humidity. The scent of the river and ocean become more apparent. The wind changes bringing a much needed coolness to the air or perhaps a chill. Choosing words to describe the weather, atmosphere and setting can set the tone for the scene, it can even set the tone for the book. What is it about our surroundings that can change a happy story to something foreboding?

In the book I am reading by Katharine Ashe, she uses a lot of weather. At the beginning of the story her heroine is caught in a hurricane on the island of Jamaica. She is new to the island and has no idea what is happening. Ms. Ashe weaves the character’s bravery and innocence along with her naiveté concerning the storm. She expertly shows the woman’s character with the clean up after the storm using sight, scent and emotion to heighten the tension in the story. Later, as she trudges through Scotland, we see a change in the weather and in the character. Like the cold, rugged terrain of Scotland the young woman grows older, colder and tougher. Ms. Ashe describes the weather and blends the two as if the setting is another character reflecting the changes in her heroine.

A member of the Pamlico Writers’ Group, Eileen Lettick has been sharing her story about a young girl who has been in an abusive situation. The character’s bedroom and the changes in décor also reflect the changes in her own situation. When her mother takes down the pretty flowery curtains in the living room and puts up the old, heavy drapes we get a sense of foreboding. The changes Ms. Lettick puts in her story are often subtle but the impact is powerful.

I use my hometown as the setting for my stories. I often reflect back to the things that have affected my mood or perception over the years. Here are some examples:

“The warm breeze swept my tears into the river. Their saltiness mingling with the brackish water. The earthy scent of mud and the promise of the ocean filled the air, comforting and frightening as the future that was still a mystery.”

“The dirt road was a ribbon of creamy satin in the darkness. The icy wind made my steps quicker, the effort lifting my spirits. I could smell the freshness in the air, a newness, a promise. The pearl-glow of the moon, a cameo set in silver against a velvet blue sky. The face in the moon brought comfort and lightness, everything would be okay. The child stirred within me, he too felt the promise in the winter night.”

“The smell of rain filled their senses. Their hair lifted in the quivering of wind and electricity. Glancing at the fields beside them, they saw the rain rushing towards them. Dancing across the parched field, drenching row after row as it moved closer to the road. They ran. The cool breeze filling their lungs as the first icy drops pelted their bare skin and sizzled on the pavement.”

I hope each of these scenes gives you a glimpse of my home and what I was feeling at the time. Our word choices, the images we wish to convey, the descriptions all are important parts of the setting and scene. Thinking of the setting as another character, realize its importance to the story. Study not only the landscape that makes of your setting but the feeling it evokes, the sights, the smells, the sounds. Use words that bring us to this place and help us feel we are there.

I could not tell my stories in another setting. In New York City I might walk along the streets alone and lonely but I am not truly alone. I maybe just another face lost in this ocean of people, but the sights, the smells, the emotions that happen in a large city would not be the same as walking along a dusty dirt road with nothing but trees and wildlife for company. How important is setting to your stories. How would a different setting effect what is happening? If I mention New Orleans and Katrina, you have an image in your head. But if I spoke of hurricane Katrina in another place, the story would be vastly different. As you write your stories, consider what makes it unique and paint us a word picture. Remember to use all of your senses to describe setting.

The taste of the jambalaya spicy on your tongue. The sound of the musician on the corner blowing an old jazz tune for the crowd of tourists. The smell of the Mississippi mingling with the sweat of too many people as the succulent scents of seafood frying in the Quarter calls us, reminding us of home.