This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tell Me About the Weather

            Every reader has certain pet peeves — things authors do that can drive you nuts when you’re reading their books. One of mine, I’d have to say, is mystery novelists who don’t tell you what time of year the story is taking place and what the weather is like.
            I mention mystery novels in particular because most writers of literary fiction are aware of the need to create atmosphere and be descriptive. But for some reason a certain number of the folks who write mysteries and thrillers seem to feel it’s not important.
            Perhaps that comes from thinking of a book as a page-turner, where the author’s job is to move the story forward and get to the next scene of violence or mayhem as quickly as possible. From that perspective, not mentioning the season or the weather makes a certain superficial type of sense. After all, a paragraph spent describing Paris in the spring might cause the reader to set the book aside before getting to the shootout at the Louvre.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

            Count me among the unconvinced. Granted, a book written in the aforementioned style keeps the reader moving forward, but at the end there’s a feeling of disappointment, sort of like eating a big dinner then being hungry an hour later. Reading a mystery or thriller without sufficient atmosphere or character is a letdown, and while the author may have kept me turning the pages, I’m not likely to return.
            In days gone by, establishing a sense of atmosphere by describing the setting and the weather was so obligatory as to be universal. No nineteenth century author would have had a group of weary travelers seeking refuge at a Transylvanian castle without mentioning that it was a dark and stormy night and going into considerable detail about both the darkness and storminess. For the reader, that alone established that something was up at the castle.
            Or consider, on the less ominous side, the way Wilkie Collins got the ball rolling in his classic The Woman in White:
            “It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields and the autumn breezes on the sea shores.”

You Notice It on Vacation

            In my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance,my leading character is on a fishing vacation in the High Sierra at the tail end of summer, and I tried to capture the shifting nature of the mountain weather at that time of year and weave it into the story.
            That made sense, I felt, because when you’re on vacation, you tend to be outside more and be paying more attention to the weather. Certain trips are inextricably linked in memory to the weather. I remember camping in the perishing heat of a July in Idaho in 1985 as clearly as I remember running through a drenching rainstorm in Venice to get to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice in 2009.
            Looking back at the mysteries I’ve read in the past couple of years, it seems that some of the best literary use of weather came from Swedish writers such as Henning Mankell and the Sjowall-Wahloo team. When you think about it, why should that be surprising? They come from a country where, to drag out the old joke, there’s nine months of winter and three months of bad skiing. Of course they’re going to pay attention to the weather.