by Janis Patterson
Last night we had some terrible storms around here – tornadoes touched down all over the area, baseball sized hail, lots of destruction, and (worst of all) several people died. Fortunately my home and family was spared any real damage – a thorough drenching, small leak in the garage, some greenery down – but it was frightening for a while. Just listening to the area’s tornado sirens going consistently for over half an hour and hearing the trees slapping against the house was nerve-wracking enough.
Which brings me to my topic – weather. Do we ever really realize how much weather is a tool in our books? Yes, you can write a creepy mystery set in a nice suburban villa with brilliant sunshine, balmy breezes and the sound of children laughing in the yard next door. It’s been done, and done well, but to my mind it makes the story lose something. There are those who say the very normalcy of such a setting increases the tension, but I’m not one of them. My mind (no comments, now!) tends to discount danger inherent in bright, sunny days.
How much more disturbing is the low-hanging overcast sky, the shadowy house which no amount of light seems to illuminate completely, the wind scratching at the windows, a driving rain…
Perhaps less-than-perfect weather, night, darkness, shadows all ignite a feeling of unease in a primitive part of our brains. What we cannot see we cannot be prepared for. We are all hardwired to fear the unknown something that lurks in the dark. Did you have monsters under the bed in your childhood? I did. Did I every see them? Nope, but I knew they were there just the same. Sometimes, if I’m working on a particularly intense book, or it’s a stormy night and I’m alone in the house, they might still be there. I’m not going to crawl under and look, either!
Sometimes having an active imagination can be a curse.
Conversely, it’s very difficult to have a lighthearted comedic story set in that same dank and drear house – or shadowy urban alleyway – under lowering, stormy skies.
There’s a cliché opening that Bulwer-Lytton used in the hyperverbal Victorian era – “It was a dark and stormy night…” Once I was beginning a new project (a Gothic mystery) and had the story pretty much pat, but could not get the beginning started until I really used “It was a dark and stormy night…” after which the story just rolled. When the book was finished I did go back and change it, not wanting to be an object of fun, but for my own personal uses it was invaluable. I do wish I could have used it, though…
Writers have a myriad of tools available to them, and the weather is one of the most effective. There’s nothing like it for setting mood and tone.
At least we can control the weather in our books. I would have loved to have been able to last night.