12 October 2011

Got weather? ...making weather and seasons matter in plot!

Seasons change. Do they also change in your story? How does weather affect your characters? Or do they ignore it? Weather happens, but does it happen in your story?

On the calendar, it is the middle of October. By my internal circadian clock, I should be experiencing the full flourish of autumn foliage. The intellectual part of my brain cautions, however, that the dates will alternate based on where I am in the world. Raised in the Midwest, it seems right on time.

But, having recently lived in the Northeast, I feel it's behind schedule. Friends from the Northeast have shared their pictures and so I get some necessary fix. But it's never enough. Perhaps I should make it my business to remain perpetually in autumn by following the blossoming colors, wherever they may be: something like a pub crawl, only following falling leaves.

Surely that is madness! Is it? Why cannot one live in perpetual autumn? Or springtime, or summer for that matter. Winter is easy enough. And yet, as I consider the settings of science-fiction tales, it strikes me as odd that there are seldom seasonal changes. Of course, some stories occur safely within the bounds of a single season. Others are set on worlds where there is perpetual winter or summer. Yet none that I can recall are set in a permanent autumn. I vaguely recall a story by Arthur C. Clarke titled "Autumn Country"--or I could be way off (help me out, s/f readers). That one, I think, was merely metaphorical, not autumnal.

Perhaps that has a lot to do with the transience of the season. Given the finite measure of tree sap and the subsequent coloration of leaves, it would be nearly impossible to maintain that moment indefinitely. Although I am not an "outdoor" person, I take notice of the changing seasons--and the weather particular to each season. That makes me incorporate the seasons--and the daily weather--into the novels I write, whether science-fiction or literary. For some characters, of course, the weather is important. For some plot points, particular weather is crucial. Could we ever have a "dancing in the rain" moment if it were set in a desert with little rain for the whole year? And how can you make "snow angels" in a tropical location?

People go about their lives seldom paying attention to the weather. Such moments of attention seem reserved for storms or for the few "perfect" days. Here are some examples of incorporating seasons and weather into the story. It doesn't take much, but when it happens--much like a sudden thunderburst--readers take notice, along with the characters about which they are reading.

Eric stared out the windows of the fifth floor foyer,transfixed by the dark gray skies, the ominous clouds drifting over the campus. He decided this was the first authentic day of autumn, a day when the pure gloom of the season saturates everything. He wanted to go out, walk the campus as Albright suggested, and take in the delightfully cold, blustery afternoon. But he had papers to grade.

In the above excerpt from A Beautiful Chill, the protagonist equates his mood with the season; they are in lockstep.

After the rain stopped, Íris makes her way to the hill overlooking the canteen, and takes off her clogs, stands barefoot in the soft, wet grass. She wiggles her toes and feels like a little girl again as she gazes up at the gray clouds, churning as though they regret dropping all of their rain so soon and not saving any to spill on her. She raises her arms to the sky and chants the spell of making and the pale sun burns through the clouds for a minute.

In this second example (above) from A Beautiful Chill, notice how the weather (rain) has affected the mood of the protagonist. It is a crucial shift of attitude which makes what happens next plausible.

Eric was surprised the Icelandic painter entered his mind as he swung his car onto the highway early in the morning, heading south for Thanksgiving break. A jagged line of thunderheads spread across the horizon before him. Soon the Oklahoma rain battered him. Four hours later, as he approached the Texas line, he knew why he was driving south. 

Weather and seasonal words and images can also stand in for ideas as well as moods. Here the image of the "line of thunderheads" is not only something real on the trip but something that serves as a metaphor for his state of mind: confused, threatened, stormy. The positioning of the weather images replaces a sentence in which we could have been given his direct thoughts.

In another example, images of weather and seasons set the scene, create a mood, and suggest the mindset of the character. This is the beginning of a middle chapter in my novel Aiko:

Outside, the wind was driving a light snow across the peninsula, singing in the woods, whistling through the eaves of the old house.
Hanako turned to the warm fire and held her hands near.  The kotatsu—the table with the electric heater underneath—was turning her legs toasty.  The house was silent, her obâsan long ago turning in and her infant daughter even earlier.  Now she was alone.

In After Ilium, set on the Turkish coast during July, all of the descriptions are designed to emphasize the dust, dirt, and heat of the location. There, the protagonist, Alex Parris, is eager to visit the site of ancient Ilium.

Although the story occurs all in the same location and season, without a drop of rain, the environment that is set up contrasts welcomely with images of water (the strait he paddles across), liquid (water from a stream, a cold bottle of beer), thirst (for a drink and metaphorically for other desires), and the comfort of home it represents. The differences between hot and dry and cool and wet create a subtle, continuous motif throughout the novel.

He breathed in dust and felt his body limp against an unyielding surface. His eyes saw mostly darkness. At the edges, a deep bronze light played with him. The surface beneath him was warm, wet with his perspiration. And his blood, he suspected. Soon he felt some vibration beneath him. It grew stronger and he realized what was happening. He broke through his stupor and, at the last possible moment, summoned what energy remained in him and thrust his weakened body over.
He felt the hot sun on his face. The noise and vibration continued and he knew he must go further. One more time, he urged himself, and rolled over again. Then again, and found himself quickly dropping into a shallow ditch filled with the powdery beige dust that covered everything in this Mediterranean landscape.

In Year of the Tiger, set in India, half of the story is told through the tiger-protagonist's point of view. I reasoned that animals would be far more attuned to the seasons and the weather and therefore always be noting its changes or stasis while the humans, busy with their everyday concerns, would be less attentive of seasons and weather patterns to the point of ignoring them.

The dawn drew up blood-red, like the spilled essence of a great carcass laid across the canopy of the world, dripping, oozing down its palate onto a frigid horizon that soaked it all in like a reluctant sponge longing to be wrung.

Although the passage may seem overdone, the point was to demonstrate the heightened stimulation animals in the wild receive from the natural world to which humans are not attuned.

Weather and seasonal phenomena on alien worlds is a special case. For The Dream Land trilogy, much of the action is set on a planet revolving around a pair of suns, the larger yellow star and the smaller blue star. For a portion of each day the light from both suns combine to cast a range of greenish hues across the landscape. It becomes especially evocative to include such unusual phenomena in the story.

Here is an excerpt from when our hero, Set-d'Elous (a.k.a. Sebastian Talbot) attends his alien wife's dying moments:

On the second day of winter, the month of Gouo in 1481, with the pea-colored flurries drifting downward from the Kelly green clouds hovering against the horizon, imprisoning the suns at their final dusk light, he turned away from the window and took her hand once more, kneeling beside the qala.  In the darkening shadows their eyes met, penetrating deeply into each other’s souls.  He felt the squeeze of her fingers, the pull of her eyes.  He remembered every moment he had gazed into those eyes, and the first time: forty-one years behind the calm wake of his longboat, sailing the Ghoupalle River Styx called Fardomn-Iker.  A stroke of his silent oar, a smooth passage, journey of eternity.  So sang the man in the raelor robe who extended the GP insignia, hammered out of gold, over her prone figure.

As I look back through my catalog, I see that I can classify my stories as either "Summer" or "Winter" stories based on their general settings. Similarly, I used the season I was in as an aid to writing the story. It's a struggle to write a snowy scene in the middle of July, or a hot and dusty scene while bundled up with my stockinged feet up against the space heater. Likewise, I need those same seasons to make revision and final preparation for publication go more easily. We are affected more than we may realize, especially as writers, by all of this phenomena around us. (The one exception might be a story set completely indoors with no windows.)

Let your characters experience the weather and the seasons, just as we do. Let them comment on it. Talking about the weather is always a conversation starter, after all. Let the weather interfere with the plot: storms, floods, dust, rain washing out a picnic, snow making roads impassable--tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, perhaps. And beautiful sunrises and sunsets, too. And light spring dew. And brilliant autumn leaves drifting down upon the yellowing grass. Clouds of many shapes. The color of the sky, the angle of sunlight in each season and at different times of day. 

Without having your characters give a complete meteorological explanation of every phenomena they experience, let them acknowledge and be affected by what they experience. We are all moved, positively or negatively, by what we see and feel around us.

Let these become sidekicks to your characters, partners in crime, white knights or darkest evil. 

Mother Nature will thank you later. Maybe.

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