ON WEATHER AND VIOLENCE: A Case for Starting your Book with Thunder and Lightning

by Nancy Means Wright

Not long ago we had an early September freeze that threatened my veggie patch, and lo, this morning the temperature is climbing into the 90s. I recall summer camp as a kid in mid-August, and pulling my green shorts on under the bed covers because it was too cold to stand up in my thin pjs. One of my bunk mates was wrapped in a blanket as she headed for the bath house–forgetting how two hot weeks earlier she’d shoved ahead of me where I was waiting for a cold shower.

Later she apologized for pushing me aside. “It was the heat did it,” she said, as though the heat–and later the cold–was somehow animate, and living intimately among us.

Now the rain is slashing my study window, its hot fingernails scratching at the glass as though trying to break in. trying to stab me…and I want to choke it off–make it stop! It’s stifling in here despite the downpour, and my weary fan only scatters the papers on and off my desk–it doesn’t cool my face.  “Stinking weather!” I shout at the cat–and panicked, she leaps off my lap.

I turn back to my writing.  I’m starting something new, and my opening sentence wants to describe the slashing rain, and now tiny bullets of hail.   Yet “never open a book with weather,” the late Elmore Leonard famously said. “If it’s merely to create atmosphere and not a character’s reaction to the weather,” his first Rule insists, “you don’t want to go on too long.”

From which I infer from Leonard that it is okay to elaborate on a character’s reaction to the weather–and at the beginning of a book as well as in medias res.  i want to start my story with the rage I’ve been feeling about this thundering deluge that will keep me this afternoon from harvesting tomatoes and taking a leisurely think-walk in the woods behind my house.

But too hot even to write, I pick up a N.Y. Times essay titled Weather and Violence by Burke, Hsiang and Miguel.  “Whether their focus is on small scale interpersonal aggression or large scale political instability,” the scientists write, “on low or high income societies, on the year 10,000 BC or the present day, the overall conclusion is the same: episodes of extreme climate make people more violent toward one another. ”

Yi!

Not only did higher temperatures and extreme rainfall lead to large increases in conflict, the writers claim, but drought and agricultural scarcity, too, “helped bring about the collapse of civilizations: the Akkadian empire in Syria around 2000 BC, or the Maya in Mexico in the ninth century A.D.”

Yi yi!  Then what does a hot, wet and angry planet bode for our crime novels?   More reason for violence? Bad weather as a villainous character in our books?

I think of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time that begins with (yes it does!)  “It was a dark and stormy night.”  And in walks “a most disturbing stranger,” upsetting the status quo, transforming the characters’ lives. Or Gore Vidal’s Williwaw: a ship caught in frigid Arctic waters with few women on board and male jealousies running berserk.

I think, too, of the  night of thunder and lightning that engendered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  And the year-of-no-summer, 1816, when skies went black, crops failed and people stole and lashed out–which paradoxically , brought prosperity for writers, including my friend Lee Kemsley, who has just brought out a YA novel, The Hunger Year. In 1998 a powerful ice storm struck Vermont, felled trees and power lines, and for a whole week food rotted in our refrigerators. I cursed the electricians who were too busy elsewhere to come to my house. But my novella, Fire and Ice, in which someone hurls a giant icicle at a woman’s head, was published as a Worldwide Mystery Library original. Should I have been cursing–or thanking the calamitous weather for bringing me publication?

Writers thrive on adversity, yes. I remind myself of that on freaky days like this one, when I complain about the weather. I will begin my story with rain and hail–after all, Shakespeare’s Macbeth opens with “Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches.” And I’ll blame the subsequent violence on it, as well as on my chosen villain, who will surely be an ordinary person like myself, propelled to mischief by the explosive skies.

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8 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    First of all, I just finished reading Broken Strings and liked very much the use of the fall setting in Vermont. That said, I think weather is an important part of setting. As for Leonard, a wonderful writer, but I don’t think we should take everything he said quite so literally as many writers these days are doing. His do’s and don’ts have had great influence on current novel and short story writing. Why must we imitate?

    • Elmore Leonard is (was) a brilliant writer, but I agree, Jacquie, that we can’t accept everyone’s writerly advice, and must consider what’s best for our individual story. Your novel “The Third Eye” surely used weather and atmosphere to full advantage, and was a vital and fascinating character in the book. When I think of weather in our books, I look to Macbeth. Those witches in thunder & lightning set the scene with gusto!

  2. Interesting as always, Nancy.
    Besides enjoying weather as setting, I find it satisfying when weather “devices” make events more plausible. I’m thinking of the recent closing of “Dexter” where a very likely Florida hurricane makes certain actions possible that wouldn’t be plausible otherwise. (Sorry to break away from your wonderful literary references!) I recently used an earthquake in California to provide clues. It’s fun to try to think of others.

    • Good thought, CamilIe–weather to make events more plausible. Surely an earthquake would provide clues. Which book of yours is that in? I can imagine what “clues” an earthquake would spew up out of the ground–a woman’s underwear, a pistol, a diary that confesses all? What fun!

      • Since the book isn’t out until April 2014 (from PP), I’ll hold off saying anything more, Nancy! But I will make a note to send you a copy of MADNESS IN MINIATURE as soon as I have one!

  3. I’ll order it, Camille!

  4. I knew Elmore Leonard’s dictum when I started Murder & Sullivan with the line: “Joan Spencer was on foot when the siren went off.” I mean, how could I live in southern Indiana and never write a tornado story? And I had a terrific description from an eyewitness of how my mom’s cousin Helen looked after the tornado that orphaned her whole big family in about 1920. You bet I used it!

    • Oh, a terrific opening line, Sara. I’ve never been caught in a tornado, but always imagined the horror of being on foot in a big wind like that…And omigod–this happened to your mom’s cousin Helen–how tragic! I’ve read two or three of your earlier series—but have I read Murder & Sullivan? Now I must. Thanks for this!

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