Weather as Clues

‘Twas a dark and stormy night…  A cliche, yes, but it always worked for me when I was cutting my mystery teeth on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and my personal favorite, Kay Tracy.

Much later, I heard Elmore Leonard give his “10 Rules of Writing” in a speech.  First rule:  “Never open a book with weather.”  He went on to explain that readers want to read about characters.

It’s great advice, and I completely agree.  I’ve been giving it more thought this month with our theme of atmosphere.  Weather can play an important role in a story.  Weather can be an effective tool in good storytelling.  This tool works especially well in a mystery.

Recently, I finished reading Faceless Killers, by Henning Mankell, the first of the Inspector Wallander series.  The Scandinavian weather in winter is painted as dark and dreary, and Wallander dreads the day that snow will arrive.  “At least it’s not snowing,” he says repeatedly.  Oh boy.  The reader knows that it’s going to snow before the book is done, and when it snows, something is gonna happen.  The plot is going to take a turn.

The opposite kind of weather works, too.  James Lee Burke sets up sultry heat, and the reader anticipates electrifying tales.  I used to read a lot of books in Spanish, where the stifling heat of their settings drove the characters crazy and propelled them through interesting twists of the story.

Weather is a force, and it can drive the story.  Weather signals the reader to anticipate turning points and dark moments.  Unexpected storms come up to catch the characters unaware.  Hurricanes will capsize boats, snow storms will trap both good guys and bad guys for their showdown, fog doesn’t just set the mood but also obscures what the sleuth can observe.

I once read a chilling story where the fog in London was thick as pea soup, so thick that the victim couldn’t see the villain beside her.  In one of my favorite books, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, a storm plays a pivotal role and provides a major turning point.  If you haven’t read it yet, please do so!

I haven’t found a good tornado mystery, but I’m still looking.  Can anyone recommend one?


13 thoughts on “Weather as Clues”

  1. I’m a horse farmer and the most important thing for me to know every day is what the weather might be. In “Blood Hoax,” my characters are rushing to get in the hay before a big storm hits. The storm takes lives like any villan and certainly becomes a character and certainly affects the thoughts and actions of the lives of the human characters.


  2. Liz, I like to find the challenge of a plot turn in a sunny day. They’re not used enough!

    Ooh, Patri, that’s so interesting! Horses figure into my current WIP. Love the idea that weather can be the nastiest villain of all. Thanks for the heads up on Blood Hoax.

    Right, Wizard of Oz is a great one! I am still looking for a mystery, though. Maybe I should just write it??


  3. Wizard of Oz was my go to as well, although the trailer from Tornado (was that the name of the movie with Helen Hunt) made me think it was based on a book. I write about South Florida, weather is a character as much as my protagonist. Something happens to people in violent weather situations. It’s as if the weather strips away the facade and leaves only the essence of the person behind. Snow, rain, tornado, hurricane, ice storm, fog (that’s a great one, Sue), flood, earthquake, they can all be game changers.

    Very yeasty post.


  4. I love weather in a book. It can be another character. It can mean EXACTLY that your lost-in-a-blizzard epic could take place in only so many locations. And as you said, Sue, it can foretell.


  5. A great post about how weather can be another character. I love both hot, sultry weather and blizzards in mysteries. You asked for a mystery with a tornado. How about Ace Atkins’ The Forsaken. A tornado tore through the town of Jericho, Mississippi in that one.


  6. Ditto Kimberly’s comment – I need to go back and add some weather layers to my current WIP as well. Weather in movies is starting to be one of my pet peeves because they often use it to camouflage visual shortcomings rather than actually enhance or advance the story. But in books, we don’t have that problem, do we??


  7. And sometimes weather IS the movie, Lissa! Now that you mention it, I do remember a couple of books from other genres that feature the weather with characters serving as backdrop to move the weather plot forward. That doesn’t work nearly as well as layering in weather later. Good luck with your WIP!


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