Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Conversations with the weather - Jo Carroll

It's sunny as I write this. I can hear my neighbour cutting her grass. Bees hover on the rosemary by my window. All I want to do, if I'm honest, is to finish this and get out there. To sit in a shady corner with a book and allow the afternoon to pass me by.

I recognise that I have an ongoing conversation with the weather. It's not simply that I'm British and we can be obsessed by it. It's that the weather can shape my day. Cold has me huddled indoors, hands curled around a mug of hot tea. The rain - especially if it comes with days of endless grey - leaves me struggling to find the motivation to do anything. Wind - ask any teacher of five-year-olds how she copes with children on a windy day. I know just how those children feel - wind seems to blow through my head leaving me reeling from one idea to another without managing to grasp any of them.

I know myself well enough to recognise that there are days when I need to go with the flow of the weather, and others when I need to challenge it. Much as I'd like to take each day as it comes, life simply isn't like that. Nevertheless, it has an impact on my mood and motivation - hence my scanning the sky every morning as I open my curtains.

So, if the weather does that to me - what does it do to my characters? I'm sure we can all think of books where storms, or droughts, or hot dry days are so well-developed that they are, effectively, additional characters in the narrative. The Grapes of Wrath would have no meaning without the droughts of the American mid-west. The Shipping News would be a totally different drama if it were set in the temperate seas off the Isle of Wight. Sherlock Holmes needs his fog.

But I think the weather play be an effective - and often much more subtle - contribution to our settings. Those of us in the UK are familiar with our fluctuating climate, yet I'm not convinced I use that to full advantage in my writing. I can tell you what my characters eat for breakfast or what shoes they wear - but I don't always think about how they might feel when they pull back the curtains and see snow.

And yet the more I think about it, the more the interaction between character and weather becomes relevant. Most of us play with character sketches, decide what they eat for breakfast and do they prefer dogs to cats. These scribbles rarely make it into the final piece but are all part of getting to know people. Yet I rarely engage in speculation about characters' interactions with the weather. Do they slap on sunscreen or hide in the shade? Do they huddle against the rain, or put their face to the sky and drink it? Do they wrap up and build snowmen or hide by the fire? Are they frightened of thunder?

Or are they are tempted to abandon all those things they ought to be doing on days when the sun is shining. What book would they take into the garden ... now there's an idea.

In fact, I'll take my kindle, sit in the shade, and enjoy A Flash in the Pen. And see how my colleagues use the weather in their short stories.!

4 comments:

Susan Price said...

You're right - it's something I don't pay enough attention to in my books, although, living in Britain and on the top of a steep hill, it's something I'm constantly aware of in 'real life.'
I think the only books where I gave much thought to the weather was my Sterkarm books - and that's because the Sterkarms spend most of their time outside, and they're in Scotland. So, assume it's raining, and you're probably right.

Bill Kirton said...

Hmmm. Be careful what you wish for. An American reader of my Unsafe Acts gave it 3 stars and called his review What's the Weather Forecast? He then asked ‘what is it about British authors that make them write extensively about the terrain and the weather - and not only that, but the history of the weather and the weather in relation to surrounding areas and different seasons. A simple "It was raining." would do. The story could have been cut quite a bit shorter without all of the weather and rolling hills.’

I was a bit surprised and checked the MS. Apart from an opening sequence on an offshore platform when a hailstorm was making work difficult and contributing (I hope) to the notion that violence is part of the environment out there, there was nothing meteorological. Also, given that my setting is near the Grampians, I don’t think the single mention of hills (which weren’t ‘rolling’) was excessive.

Mari Biella said...

The weather really can be an additional character. In Wuthering Heights, the windswept, bleak moorland climate is a vital part of the narrative. I read a thriller set in Italy a little while ago, and the sun-bleached, parched landscape of an Italian summer added to the sense of relentless tension. Perhaps descriptions of weather and landscape irritate some readers, but not me!

JO said...

thank you all - Bill, I disagree with your reviewer. And I'm not sure it's just a British thing - Steinbeck was American, after all. But maybe he or she lives somewhere with a very boring climate and doesn't understand the potential of weather. (That's the charitable view!)