Weather as character, weather as plot

Weather can help create a powerful setting for a story, whether it’s blazing heat or the bleak midwinter cold. Snow and ice sets a definite tone, as does summer sunshine or droopy humidity.

Some of my favorite books are the ones where weather goes beyond a backdrop and becomes a kind of character. One of the best examples of this in a popular or genre novel is “Winter Prey” by John Sandford. This police procedural featuring Lucas Davenport is set in mid-winter Minnesota. Brrrr. From the very first page, the weather sets a chilling scene in more ways than one:

“The wind whistled down the frozen run of Shasta Creek, between the blacker-than-black walls of pine. The thin naked swamp alders and slight new birches bent before it. Needle-point ice crystals rode it, like sandpaper grit, carving arabesque whorls in the drifting snow.”

I’ve been a fan of the Prey series since the early 1990s and now I enjoy Sandford’s newer Virgil Flowers series. For me, Winter Prey is the best of the bunch because of how effectively Sandford has written winter into the story. For someone from the mid-Atlantic (where “hard” winter tends to last a couple or three weeks at most) the frosty setting is exotic and fascinating.

Weather also makes a great setting in mystery novels such as “Iced” by Jenny Siler or “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer Fleming.

As I work on “Great Storms of the Chesapeake” I’m also struck by the ways in which weather influences real-life events. For example, I’ve been working on a chapter about the hurricane that struck the Chesapeake Bay region during the War of 1812. The British had just burned Washington to the ground after defeating the American militia in the devastating battle of Bladensburg.

Out of nowhere, a tremendous storm blew up. Here is the description from “A History of Maryland” published in 1879 as described by a British officer:

“The sky grew suddenly dark, and the most tremendous hurricane ever remembered by the oldest inhabitant in the place, came on. Of the prodigious force of the wind, it is impossible for you to form any conception. Roofs of houses were torn off by it, and whisked into the air like sheets of paper; while the rain which accompanied it, resembled the rushing of a mighty cataract, rather than the dropping of a shower. The darkness was as great as if the sun had long set, and the last remains of twilight had come on, occasionally relieved by flashes of vivid lightning streaming through it, which, together with the noise of the wind and the thunder, the crash of falling buildings, and the tearing of roofs as they were stript from the walls, produced the most appalling effect I ever have, and probably ever shall witness. This lasted for nearly two hours without intermission; during which time, many of the houses spared by us, were blown down, and thirty of our men, besides several of the inhabitants, buried beneath their ruins.”

Disheartened by the storm and the massing of American troops, the British returned to their ships on Chesapeake Bay. It’s just another example of how weather influences real events, not just the stuff of fiction.

 

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