I left Mississippi a day early. I thought I could get ahead of the approaching monster storm, but instead I found myself driving through Alabama between tornadoes. I knew the road well; my book tours had taken me along this route at least twice a year. But the road became unrecognizable as the sky turned black in the middle of the day and the rain pelted my windows in a sideways stream that screamed of the high and dangerous winds. The light poles that had illuminated the Interstate on past trips now collapsed like wet spaghetti, their warped bodies turning the right lane into an obstacle course.
My desperation propelled me forward, just like the characters in my books. I knew if I stopped, the next tornado approaching from behind would find me there, alone and vulnerable along the highway. My only hope was to drive faster than it was travelling, to come out on the other side, where I knew the sun was still shining and the roads were passable.
The weather had become an antagonist, just like it had in my books.
Weather can set the stage for any emotion. A snowstorm can isolate the characters from the outside world, making them prime for a romance—or a murder. A hurricane can be the catalyst for an adventure: a ship blown off course, a protagonist fighting to survive and even triumph, a family forced to overcome their personal grievances and help one another. Even a driving rainstorm can interrupt telephones and electricity, plunging the characters into darkness and a suspense-filled black hole. Nose-diving temperatures can turn a stroll through a park into a nightmare survival story; heat and humidity can become a metaphor for a stifling existence.
Writing is part creative and part technical know-how. As a former computer analyst, I found myself analyzing those books that terrified me, those movies that gave me nightmares. I dissected the scenes right down to the sentences and use of descriptors; I watched movies sometimes frame by frame to analyze the atmosphere.
Mysteries and suspense are made more effective by the darkness. Like the road I knew so well in the bright sunshine, weather—darkening skies, wind and rain—turned it into something I had to fight against.
In contrast, comedies more often occur in the daylight. Romances, while they might occur because of bad weather, often involve scenes that are light. It makes the heart lighter and happier to picture a field of wildflowers in the spring sunshine, two lovers strolling hand-in-hand as the butterflies flit around them and the birds sing their greetings.
Now picture the same field at the tail end of winter, when the fields are still yellowed and dormant. Before the butterflies have a chance to emerge, before the birds begin to lay their eggs, a tornado is spotted on the far horizon, darkening the sky, moving directly toward the two lovers. The wind has become a deadly force, hurling debris in all directions; a driving rain is threatening to turn the field into a lethal bog.
The weather has the power and ability to change the imagery against which your characters appear. It is more potent than wallpaper or a room’s surroundings because the weather is alive.
After your climactic scene, the weather can set the stage for what lies ahead: the sun rising over the field, the warmth of the summer, the chirping of the birds, ushering in a new beginning. The character has made it through to the other side.
p.m.terrell is the internationally acclaimed, award-winning author of twelve books, including contemporary suspense/thrillers and historical adventure/suspense. You can learn more about her at www.pmterrell.com and the true stories behind her historical work at www.maryneely.com. She has joined the City of Lumberton to host Book ‘Em North Carolina, an innovative Writers Conference and Book Fair, on February 25, 2012. Learn more about it and how you can participate at www.bookemnc.org.
Thanks so much for coming by today, Trish! I’m looking forward to attending Book ‘Em in February. And what do y’all think about weather and what it adds to a setting and a story?