I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Yes, Gloucester is the home of The Perfect Storm. It’s also the place that inspired painters including Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, and Edward Hopper, who were drawn by the rocky shoreline, the deep woods, the soft, purplish light, and the dramatic skies. You can never be more than a few miles from the ocean in Gloucester, which means that weather permeates everything. From my childhood house overlooking the Essex Bay I could see fog rolling in, sunshine breaking through the clouds, or the wall of a nearly-black storm front pushing its way across the far beach.
By weather I don’t just mean temperature or wind speed. I mean, what are the elements that make up and affect the landscape? What does the air smell like? What does a winter morning sound like? What kinds of trees grow in such a place and if there’s a storm, what kinds of leaves and nuts fall on the people’s heads? If you lived in this place, what weather would you long for? What would you fear?
As a writer, these questions are gold. Asking them – and discovering the answers to them – helps me to establish my setting. And “setting” is not just a hill, or a chair. It’s light. It’s texture. It’s all the sensory inputs that make up our characters’ worlds. Look at how Willa Cather describes a thrilling sleigh ride in My Ántonia: “The wind had the burning taste of fresh snow; my throat and nostrils smarted as if someone had opened a hartshorn bottle.” And how different the cold seems in Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants: “With her good hand, Nini wrapped the thin quilt around herself, but hard as she tried, there was always part of her body exposed to the freezing air.”
Yet these passages are deceptively simple, because weather isn’t just affecting these characters. It’s also being used by these authors, to excellent affect, to express the characters’ feelings: aspects of their inner lives that can be better expressed through their sensory experience than by anything they might say or think. Fictional characters – like real people – are only so self-aware; weather is one way to let the reader in to a character’s emotions even if she doesn’t know she’s feeling them.
Weather is wonderful in yet another way: it can help create plot, which can help drive, well, the whole story. Weather can be premise, catalyst, climax, resolution. Think of the rain that keeps the Ramsay family from getting to the lighthouse (for ten years!) in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Or the drought that dries up the stream that empties the hotel that becomes a home for unwed mothers in Ann Patchett’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Or – in case you haven’t thought of it – the tornado that sets Dorothy a-flying in The Wizard Of Oz. Heat can drive people crazy and cold can create intimacy (or vice versa). In my novel, The Little Bride – set in desolate South Dakota during the 1880s – a freak hailstorm ruins the family’s wheat crop, causing a shortage of food; it also creates a great division between a father and son, one of whom wanted to harvest the crop the day before the storm, one who argued against it for religious reasons. Weather, in this case, does lots of things: it creates conflict, expresses moods, complicates relationships, and sets up the characters for future trouble.
I love weather especially when it comes to historical novels, because it’s one thing –unlike fashion trends, medical treatment, or saddle styles – that hasn’t changed very much over the years. (Let’s leave climate change out of this, shall we?) Today’s tornadoes are probably a lot like tornadoes in 1850; cumulus clouds look like cumulus clouds from 1952. As a writer, this means I have first-hand access to a very important aspect of my characters’ worlds. It also means that my readers know what my characters might smell, or even feel, during a spring rain; the very words “spring rain” evoke associations and memories, letting readers drop deeply into a world that might otherwise be strange. In this way, weather can provide a meeting point between centuries. It’s timeless. Just like the best historical novels.
To learn more about Anna Solomon and her wonderful book The Little Bride (released the 6th September 2011), don't forget to visit her website: http://www.annasolomon.com/