Saturday, February 23, 2008

Possibly One of the Greatest Characters Ever Ignored

As usual, upon waking this morning, I went down the hall and urged my son to wake up. It was time for school. Then I went back to my bedroom to throw on a sweater and while doing so, looked out the window.

I received a nice solid shock. It was snowing. Actually, it looked more like a blizzard outside. A thick layer of snow had covered the ground, the trees, the cars -- just about everything -- and more was coming down every second. Every plan I'd made for today shot through my mind. How would the weather affect it? In fact, the weather did cause me to alter some plans and delay others. I'm sure it did the same for tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

My point: the weather is an ever present and powerful force in our daily lives. Sometimes, it's quite benevolent and helpful; at other times, it makes difficult tasks even more difficult and complicates what could've been a simple matter. Most people don't dare walk out of the house without either looking out a window or checking for the weather report. Why then do so many writers simply ignore the weather when composing their stories?

Weather affects mood as well as movement. Some people have what I call the "Dandelion Syndrome." They slump when the sky is gray or the sun goes down, and perk up when the sun is high. They're melancholy when it rains, or short-tempered when it's very hot, or weepy with the full moon. (Not that dandelions are ever short-tempered!) They hate the cold and never go out when the days are short and dark. You get my drift.

Of course, you can have your serial killer schedule his merciless activities by the lunar cycle, but that's so obvious, I don't feel the urge to mention that here. What's more interesting -- to me, at least -- is when the writer shows how the weather affects individual characters and causes unexpected changes in the plot direction. Maybe you have a mother who works two jobs. It's harder to do so in the summer time because she can't afford air conditioning and it's so hot, she can't sleep, so she's extra exhausted during the day.

The weather also makes a wonderful tool to underscore and strengthen atmosphere (hot and lazy, hot and oppressive, cold and lonely, cold and refreshing, a coming thunderstorm to represent brewing anger, etc.).

Acknowledgment and use of weather is an easy way to strengthen a manuscript, to give it credibility and weight. It seems such a wasted opportunity to ignore it. The next time you sit down to work on your story, it's setting and characters, remember the weather. What time of year is it, what month and what kind of weather reigns? How does the weather affect your characters -- their moods and activities? Will the weather play a supportive role in your story, simply adding richness to the atmosphere, or will it at some point play a more active role?

For example, my latest book, Darkness and the Devil Behind Me, is set amid the cold of December. Everyone is running around with Christmas fever, everyone but Ruth Todd, the sister of a woman who vanished three years prior. Ruth's family is in agony over the never solved case of her sister's, disappearance. Now, it's December again and the anniversary of the loss, coupled with the family-oriented Christmas holidays, makes the loss even more poignant. Ruth asks society writer Lanie Price to remember Esther's case in her newspaper column. Lanie has to trudge through cold and snow as she seeks the truth about Esther's disappearance, and at the end, she has to engage in a terrifying battle on the ice in order to save her life. In writing this, I actually dug out old copies of the New York Times to check the weather for December 1923 and '26, the years in which Darkness and the Devil Behind Me plays out. It was fun and the results were worth it.

So please remember the weather when writing your tale. Be as aware of it as you are of dialog because the weather is always speaking to us, albeit subconsciously. See it as an active character and not just an inert part of a stagnant setting. See it for what it is, a living force that moves to its own rhythms, that impacts everything, whether large or small, in some way, some how. Add that extra dimension to your manuscript. You'll be glad you did.

Persia Walker


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