In a recent interview with BBC Radio Four’s Book Club, the American novelist Donna Tartt mused on the role that extremes of weather can play in fiction. Her own ‘The Secret History’ was cited as an example and she commented on the use of rain in ‘The Great Gatsby’. One of my own favourite moments from that novel comes when Daisy Buchanan suggests calling for an axe to let more air into the stifling hotel suite where the denouement is about to be triggered, like an electric storm.
The weather, like landscape, can function almost as an extra character, and yet another American, Elmore Leonard, has instructed us never – and he means never – to begin a story with weather. Presumably he intends us to avoid cliché, but weather has many uses. It can bring atmosphere, create drama, and help to explain the actions of the people who live in it. Someone who is hot will move and behave in a certain way; someone who is cold, wet, windswept, or terrified or energised by thunder will be different.
Think of Laurie Lee’s peerless recounting in ‘Cider with Rosie’ of his earliest memory, arriving in the Gloucestershire village of Slade on a hot summer day. Think of the endless rain and sea frets in E. Annie Proulx’s ‘The Shipping News’; the Alaskan snows in Eowyn Ivey’s enchanting ‘The Snow Child’, and the way Dickens uses fog in the opening pages of Bleak House; weather as character and metaphor, creeping through the streets of London. The more I think about it almost any work of fiction I’ve enjoyed seems to have weather as an essential player.
While the storms are raging around us, in this gale and flood-ridden winter we’re having, try this: take a character you have in mind for a story. Describe them as a kind of weather, writing freely about them for five minutes. Read what this has produced and pick out any descriptions or details that work well. Cross out anything that might be a cliché or that strikes a false note (‘Her eyes looked like thunder’… Thunder is more a sound than a look). Now write a scene involving your character, in which the weather conveys something about them and their situation.
On a day like today, if you need inspiration, simply look out of the window. One thing’s for sure; the weather is always with us.