We had a very strange week here in northern Utah, thanks to some strong Santa Ana winds from California and some other weird conglomeration of weather circumstances that I don’t understand and you don’t care about. Suffice it to say, my daughter had two (yeah, that’s right, count ’em up!) two “wind days” which is a first for me! The wind blew so hard that schools had to close and the second day there were 30 buses out of commission because all their windows were broken out! Yes, it was insane here.
All these weather issues made me rethink a post I have been wanting to write for a while: Using weather in your novels, why it’s important, and how to do it right.
My novels are set in Ireland, so it is vital for me to use the weather well, almost as a supporting character. It is cold and wet there most of the time, even in the summer, so to my heroine hailing from warm Colorado, this is a culture shock and requires some comment. In fact, timing my novel as to when it would be best for her to be in Ireland has been a struggle. I want her to enjoy it, so it was important that she be there in the summer when the weather is generally the best, but certain things have to happen before the end of the tourist season, and it all gets very confusing. I think I’ve succeeded, but we shall see!
In my historical novels it is going to be even more important because people in the past didn’t usually have the option of escaping the weather like we do today in our heated homes and air-conditioned cars. They had to live out in it. Rain, snow, sleet, bad winds, it didn’t matter. The chores still had to be done, food still had to be cooked, travel still had to be undertaken. But do we really think about what the weather would be like at a particular spot or time? How can we do this accurately and with interest so that it doesn’t just rain repeatedly throughout the story whenever you decide you need your heroine wet.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a site that records historical weather statistics, so what I have done is checked on the average weather, rainfall, temperature etc., for my location on current weather sites and figured that was pretty close. I am going to do the same for my historical novels, although since weather can change drastically from year to year from the average, I will adjust as necessary for my plot. The good news is that if you can’t find out what exactly the weather was on July 30, 1372, in Cambridge, England, neither can anyone else! And of course if you are working in a fantasy world, you can create your weather any way you dang well want to! Using weather patterns can add a lot of variety and interest to your story, so don’t overlook them when you world-build, no matter what time or place your story occurs.
Here are a few of my thoughts, take them or leave them as you will!
First of all, think about that world and how the people must talk about the weather. It has often been said that the Eskimos have 50 words for snow. I’m not sure how true that is, but I imagine any people that live where snow is a near constant year-round probably do have a lot of different words to describe the different types of snow, the size of the flakes, the speed at which it blows in, and how cold it is when it falls. Even I, as oblivious to the snow as I like to be, can tell the difference between the big fluffy flakes that build up fast and make for a beautiful snowman and the tiny plastic-like pellets that crunch under my shoes when it’s too cold to really snow.
In Ireland, when the rain is sort of drizzly and not really falling as much as just hanging in the air, they call it a “soft” day and it’s considered decent weather, despite the fact that to those of us from drier climes, it’s simply miserable. Invent a whole new vocabulary if necessary that allows your characters to be aware of the vagaries in their weather.
Second, try to imagine how your characters would adapt to that weather: If it’s super cold, they’ll have all sorts of various outerwear and shoes, boots, etc that help them survive. If it’s always wet, things will be waterproofed and when it naturally occurs like in furs, these things would be valuable. If it’s hot all the time, you might think they would likely wear next to nothing, but think of the people in the Middle East. They actually wear a lot of clothing to protect them from the burning sun and blowing sand. But of course, the cloth tends to be light so that it doesn’t hold in the heat.
Third, try to imagine how your characters would function in the weather. For example, in the stories about settling the western United States, the characters often have ropes leading from their little houses to the barn where the animals are kept so that in the midst of a blizzard they could get back and forth without getting lost. People are amazingly adaptable. Inventing or discussing how they adapt can add a fascinating ring of truth to a story that draws your readers in and makes them believe they are actually there.
Lastly, be aware of the sun’s setting and rising in your world and location. Most of Ireland, England, and Scotland are so far north that in the middle of the summer, it doesn’t really get dark until after 11 p.m. and then it’s light again by 4 or so, which was very peculiar for me the first time I was there. In the winter, of course, it’s just the opposite, and the sun sets early and rises late. How are these sorts of things important to your story? If it’s summer-time, how does your character sleep when it’s light? What do they do in the long dark days of winter for light and warmth?
Be as creative as possible without your story turning into a never-ending treatise on weather and you’ll be pleased with the depth these sorts of details can add to your writing.
Hope this post has been helpful to you. Thanks for reading!