Stormy Weather

by Pari Noskin Taichert

Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather . . .

Do you think much about the weather?

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve got no place to go,
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

I do.

Some people might think we’re a bit obsessed with it here in New Mexico. A hefty portion of each news broacast is spent with witty meteorologists giving play-by-plays about storms and wind advisories. They blissfully fill our minds with numbers referring to relative humidity or barometric pressure. In New Mexico, we have hailstones as big as golf balls. Rainstorms dump inches of water in minutes and then disappear as quickly into deep, cloudless azure. When rare tornados touch down, their landings merit higher billing than commonplace murders.

Maybe New Mexicans feel a kinship with our mercurial world because we can see it. We’ve generally got 30-60 mile views in most places; that makes for mighty big skies. Thunderstorms don’t sneak up on us; they lollygag.

Are New Mexicans loners in their eyes-to-the-sky approach to the world? Are we the only ones who care so much about jet streams and El Nino?

I don’t think so. Otherwise, there would be no Weather Channel. Al Roker wouldn’t have a job. And hundreds of bloggers would have to find other things to write about. What would these guys do? Or this guy? Or the millions of others I found through a Google search?

But where does weather fit into fiction?

Elmore Leonard advises never to open a book with weather. Yet the recently deceased Madeleine L’Engle does just that in her masterpiece A WRINKLE IN TIME: "It was a dark and stormy night."

I believe weather is underestimated in novels. It can set the tone, cause problems, invite sensuality. L’Engle’s tongue-in-cheek opening gives us an anything-can-happen, delicious feeling that’s both ominous and tempting.

I know I often write about weather in my novels — but then I’m a New Mexican, so it’s natural for me.

Don’t other authors see the connection? Why aren’t writing blogs abuzz with discussions about weather’s roles and uses in literature?

I want to know . . . (have you ever seen the rain?)

Maybe in big cities, weather isn’t important. Maybe it’s just a nuisance or a given. The only time it attracts attention is when it’s exceptional — a blizzard or a drought — not like here in NM, where each day it’s a fascinating topic even if nothing much is happening.

I wonder.

Why is weather taken for granted?

Who writes it well?

Does weather even matter in fiction? Is it overdone (and I’m just missing it)? Underrepresented?

One place where weather certainly does matter is in music. Here’s one of my favorite songs of all time, a beautiful version by Louis Armstrong when he entertained the troops in Vietnam. He could have been singing about New Mexico.

I’ve seen skies of blue, clouds of white . . .

13 thoughts on “Stormy Weather

  1. Jim Winter

    I think the reason common wisdom says not to open with a weather report can be summed up in 7 words:

    “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    It’s not to keep the weather out of the opening. It’s to avoid the type of prose dark and stormy implies.

    OTOH, if a blizzard or a cold snap is a plot point, there’s nothing like hitting the reader in the face with a subzero blast of air.

  2. pari

    Good morning, Jim.

    That little phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” is usually associated with Snoopy and his struggles to get published.

    Yet, it’s the same phrase that opens A WRINKLE IN TIME and it works beautifully. The weather, especially in the beginning chapters of the book, is very important to the overall mood.

  3. Louise Ure

    The weather in Arizona is important in my work, but I’m not sure that would be as true for me if I wrote about other places.

    And we actually had thunder and lightning here in San Francisco over the weekend. What a rare treat!

  4. Keith Raffel

    Can’t open with the weather if the book is set in the Bay Area. Too boring. The weather forecast is the same over half the year: “Sunny tomorrow with coastal fog extending inland night and morning.” If you can say that well, there’s a TV weather job waiting for you in San Francisco.

  5. billie

    Pari, I’m very attuned to the season and within that, the weather as well. One of the reasons I came back to the south is because there is often (although with years of drought seasons upon us this seems to be changing) a build up of heat/cold and then a release in the form of thunderstorm, rain, or sleet/ice/snow. I find that build up and release is a part of my natural rhythm and if I don’t get it I start to lose track of time/centeredness.

    This finds its way into my writing as well. I think I find the rhythm of the book via what’s going on in the season.

  6. pari

    Louise,I wonder if it’s the Big sky that inspires you in AZ?

    Keith,Thanks for chiming in. Is SF really that predictable? What’s the rare weather there, the kind that stops people in their tracks?

    Billie,I’m with you. We just had two huge thunderstorms this past week and the catharsis was palpable. Just gorgeous.

  7. Tom

    JL Burke writes weather well. I’ve noticed it in his Montana books, and it was nearly a character in LAST CAR TO ELYSIAN FIELDS, set in autumn and winter on the Gulf.

    Pari, we lived in Corrales and Cedar Crest. I think weather remains an important topic in NM because it’s once of the rare places where it can put your life in danger between one breath and the next.

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Weather in Louisiana is a constant topic because it changes so rapidly. Right now, it’s storming. That will change in five minutes. We have flash floods, terrible heat, and, obviously, hurricanes.

    I didn’t use weather in book 1; the incredible heat is mentioned in book 2, but weather isn’t going to play a significant part in the story arc; if it does, I’d build it up more.

    That said, I like the mention of weather since, as a reader, I’m so aware of it here in my own environment and if someone leaves it out completely, I have a difficult time connecting to their place–especially if it’s a vastly different environment than my own (like NM’s).

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I also find it alienating if an author doesn’t put me in contact with the weather. Even in So Cal I’m always attuned to the feel of the heat, the wind, the variation in temperature. The elements add a huge sensory dimension to writing, and often add thematic meaning as well – I can’t imagine leaving them out.

  10. JT Ellison

    I’m with you and Alex, Pari. I LOVE weather, and definitely use it to set scenes and moods where appropriate. And I actually set my books from season to season instead of year to year. ATPG is in the summer, 14 is winter, JK is Spring… That way the setting changes dramatically yet I never have to move away from Nashville. It’s working so far…

  11. pari

    Tom,Good call on JLB. And, you might be right about NM and weather. It can change so quickly here, even that lollygagging thunderstorm might turn into a tornado.

    Toni and Alex,Yep. I feel exactly the same way. I’m intensely aware of the world around me and weather is a big part of it.

    J.T.,Cool thematic approach with the weather there. It’s a nifty solution to creating an entirely different place in the same location with each book. Very cool idea.

  12. Jaimie

    I am very attuned to the weather and I love my rainy days to curl up at home with a book. It does alot in setting tone, mood, and atmosphere in a story as well. It can be used as a challenge to overcome as well. After all, what would a story about, say Katrina, be without it? Have a great day!

  13. pari

    Jaimie,Great to see you here.

    That’s how I feel about weather; it’s such an important part of the total experience.

    Still, I don’t understand why writers don’t talk about it more while discussing the craft.

    Strikes me as strange.


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