Whether the Weather

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I usually try to do what Elmore Leonard says. If plied with wine or office supplies, I might even admit to having a fantasy about him being my life coach, going to the gym with me, telling me how to cook risotto. And Elmore Leonard said enough with writing about the weather. He’s not alone. Elinor Lipman says to give it up. It’s trite; it’s tired. One more short story opening with the weather and the world may indeed implode.

Large is the forest of trees cut down to abet this crime of weather over-sharing. A quick Internet search of beginning fiction identifies the culprit: the exercise we all did that instructed us to use the weather to evoke a character’s mood. Set the tone with the weather! It’s easy, it’s breezy, or perhaps drizzly and dreary to then toss that description right into the heart of a new story. Even in dialogue, everybody talks about the weather, don’t they?

Normally, I wouldn’t dare to disobey Elmore and Elinor. But here’s the thing: the weather is deep inside of me. I grew up on a farm where weather was everything. Not only did weather determine our family’s income, but day-to-day life was dramatically affected. The buckets of hog feed were twice as heavy if a cold blast was coming out of Canada. The amount of hay getting stuck in your underwear directly correlated with how hot it was when you were stacking it. A snowstorm didn’t just mean inconvenience, it often meant no electricity, no water, dead cattle.

When I left home for college, my grandmother wrote me regularly and every single one of those one hundred and fifty-six letters opens with the weather. Not only in Nebraska, mind you. If she happened to have talked to my aunt in Denver, she would describe the weather there as well. No matter that it would have changed in the week or so it took for me to get her note. Weather was what she lived. The first thing asked by either of my parents when I speak to them: what’s the weather doing there? 2015’s Boston Snowmaggedon was our Super Bowl.

How then, dear Elmore, could I possibly write about the kinds of characters I know so intimately without writing about the weather? Isn’t there a case on the other side? What would Annie Proulx’s Wyoming be without its wind and storms? Or Joyce’s The Dead without the snow?

Fiction, however, is never true, no matter how authentic. None of us would read a novel filled with the kind of dialogue we all actually speak. “Um, uh huh. Just let me finish this one text…..yeah, I don’t know, tofu for dinner again……we could go out….” The tedium would kill us. Even authentic weather, then, has to find its place. That is part of Proulx’s brilliance, isn’t it? She knows when to use the weather and when the wind should die away.

So, with some rules of which any life coach would be proud, I keep my weather obsession in check:

  • If you’re stumped and turn to the weather because you’re searching for something, cut it.
  • Unless the whole story is the result of a single, epic weather event, don’t open with a description of it. (Except if you’re opening with Hurricane Katrina because well, there are so many stories that can go from there.)
  • If the turning point in a scene is derived from the weather and not a character’s action or reaction, it doesn’t work.
  • Major weather is like a character; if that tornado doesn’t serve multiple purposes and deepen the story’s arc, ax it.
  • In its every appearance, weather has to impact the character. The wind mustn’t just blow, it has to make the character’s hair slap her in the face such that she’s distracted from seeing a truth before her.
  • If characters are going to talk about the weather, they better damn well be using it to convey something deeper about their relationship.

And finally:

  • If you’re going to disregard Elmore, be very certain about why you’re doing it, lest your writing will become as heavy as a roiling storm cloud, gray and dark on the distant horizon.

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