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Partly Cloudy, Scattered Showers: Setting the Scene with Weather
by Larissa I. Ione

Return to Research & Interviews · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Sobbing uncontrollably, Jane Heroine slumps against the cold windowpane in her bedroom. Outside, gray skies weep with her, sharing in her misery. A dense fog bank rolls in to envelop her house, much as grief has enveloped her broken heart.

Across the world, in another era and another novel, Joe Hero crouches over the body of a murdered woman in a dark, London alley. Footsteps echo off the surrounding stone buildings. Do the footsteps belong to the killer? A sudden flash of lightning illuminates the grisly scene, and a thunderous boom drowns out the sound of the knife-wielding murderer's approach.

An author might ask, is the use of weather effective in imparting a sense of "feeling" and "setting" to my scenes? Sure. An author might also ask, is it sometimes overused to the point of being almost cliche? Definitely.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are stories in which characters apparently exist in some sort of future world where the climate is controlled so it never rains, snows, or blows hard enough to mess up the heroine's hair, and the temperature is always a pleasant 72 degrees. That, or they live in San Diego.

Weather does play a significant role in our daily lives. We might not realize it, but on some inner level we are constantly aware of what is taking place outside. When we get dressed in the morning, we choose clothing appropriate for the outside weather. On our way out the door, we might grab a jacket or an umbrella, and perhaps our gloves. Even if we do not have a single thought about the weather before we leave the house, once outside we notice the temperature, the condition of the sky, and the presence of wind.

Just as we are aware of these natural elements, so are your characters. Or at least, they should be. Their observations help ground the reader and characters in the setting and add texture to your story canvas. The use of weather can also enhance your romance novel with a richness you might not have thought possible, especially if you use it in a way the reader is not expecting.

Remember the sad heroine and the weepy clouds that mirror her emotions? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with giving your scene a background that reflects the drama unfolding within a character. But why not, on occasion, counter your character's emotion with the opposite weather to place even more emphasis on their situation?

For example, Jane Heroine's suffering is beyond measure. Her eyes are puffy and swollen from crying, her heart feels like a useless weight in her chest, and to top it all off, she has a pounding headache. Outside however, the sun shines brightly in the cloudless azure sky, birds chirp and flit through trees, and children laugh as they play in the park. To the heroine, it seems that not even the weather shares her misery. Life for everyone else is peachy, and she is utterly alone. Used properly, a warm, sunny day can be even more effective in creating an atmosphere of despair than cold, rainy weather.

Or maybe your hero and heroine are taking a walk when an unexpected downpour drenches them. Instead of letting the shower ruin their day, they laugh and embrace the romantic side of nature. The patter of the raindrops creates a musical rhythm that leads to a passionate waltz in the rain.

And thunderstorms need not be harbingers of doom or the punctuation during a villain's confession. Why not allow something wonderful to happen in the midst of a violent tempest? Let's say your hero is pacing the floor of his apartment while waiting to hear from the heroine, who was on a flight to Paris--a flight that crashed in the middle of the Atlantic. A thunderstorm wreaks havoc all around the hero, adding to his anxiety. It seems to him that all is lost. Then, the phone rings. Once, twice, three times before he finally answers it. He is, after all, expecting the airline's call to confirm the worst. The storm is raging, and your readers are anticipating something horrible because they have become conditioned to think that a storm must herald tragedy. The hero picks up the receiver, and on the other end is the heroine's sweet voice. She missed the flight! What might have been viewed as a gratuitous foreshadowing of disaster has become an unexpected celebration, courtesy of nature's dazzling light show.

In a different scenario, perhaps your characters' wedding is interrupted by a severe storm. If the wedding takes place outdoors, use the catastrophe to demonstrate the couples' resolve to "weather" anything, instead of having it symbolize possible trouble ahead. If the wedding is an indoor event and the storm takes out the power, the ceremony can still take place because the brilliant bursts of lightning allow the couple to read their vows. And think about how beautiful the bride would be if the light filters through the church's stained glass windows and bathes her in flashing rays of color. How could such a thing be taken as an ominous sign? Might your characters see this as a wedding gift from God?

Okay, so you've decided to use weather to enrich your story. Now make sure you use it properly. Based on some common mistakes writers make, I've made a brief list of tips you might find useful.

1. There are basically two types of precipitation with which a writer should be familiar. These are showery and steady. Showers are products of what meteorologists call cumuliform clouds, and are by nature intermittent. Therefore, there is no such thing as a "steady rain shower," and "intermittent showers" is redundant. Types of showery precipitation include snow, rain, ice pellets, snow pellets, and hail.

2. Precipitation from stratiform clouds tends to be steady, although it can vary in intensity. This kind of precipitation may be termed as intermittent. You would simply write, "intermittent rain," or "intermittent drizzle." Types of steady precipitation include rain, snow, ice pellets, snow pellets, and drizzle.

3. Fog can thicken or thin, but precipitation cannot. Precipitation increases or decreases in intensity, becoming heavier or lighter.

4. Lightning can strike an object up to ten miles away from the parent cumulonimbus cloud, and it need not be raining for lightning to strike.

5. Lightning can strike the same place twice.

6. Contrary to popular belief, tornadoes can cross water, and they do not necessarily follow valleys. Air currents determine their paths, not land formations.

7. Tornadoes that do not touch the ground are called funnel clouds. Tornadoes touching water are called waterspouts.

8. Many writers use the term "squall" interchangeably with "storm." Unless your story takes place at sea or your character is a sailor who is familiar with nautical terms, calling a squall a storm is incorrect. On land, the technical definition of a squall is "a sudden increase in the average wind speed of at least 16 knots and sustained at 22 knots or more for at least one minute." While you probably do not need to know the exact definition, you should know that although squalls usually occur during storms, they are not themselves storms. They are also rare, so please avoid having your characters encounter frequent squalls throughout your novel.

9. Wind chill affects only living things. Inanimate objects such as cars are not affected by wind chill, but the ambient air temperature may have an effect on them.

10. Hurricanes have eyes. Thunderstorms do not. Please do not label a calm period in during a thunderstorm "the eye of the storm." Chances are that the calm period is simply a break between two individual cumulonimbus clouds that produce the storms.

Used properly and creatively, weather can have a tremendous impact on your story. Weather happens twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in the real world, and so it should in the world of fiction. When you neglect to insert weather elements into your writing, you fail to utilize a powerful tool. Use it to create setting, to highlight emotion, and to pull the reader in with something to which everyone can relate. Your characters and your readers will thank you for it.

Helpful Sites:

Weather in Fiction, by Karen Pon

Weather & Worldbuilding 101, by Karen Pon

Copyright © 2002 Larissa Estell
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Larissa Ione, a former Air Force, NWS, and FAA meteorological specialist, is the author of sexy contemporary and dark paranormal romances. Published with Red Sage and Warner under her own name, she is also one half of the writing team of Sydney Croft, whose debut paranormal action novel, Riding The Storm, was published by Bantam Dell in 2007. Larissa currently resides in Virginia with her Coast Guard husband, son, and a menagerie of rescued animals. Visit her website at http://www.LarissaIone.com


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