Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Questioning a master?

Elmore Leonard famously wrote a list of writing instructions that began with “Never open a book with weather.” And ends with “Leave out the parts people skip.”It has been reprinted in many places and quoted often. In actual fact, he later said it was meant as a reminder to himself, not a proclamation to the world, but he did write a short book about it too. Generally it’s great advice from a great master, but that first rule has always bothered me. Here’s why: where I grew up , weather can be a major player in that game called life we are playing and writing about.

You may have heard of upstate New York and the lake effect?  That means Lake Ontario, about 20 miles from my home town.  

I met acclaimed mystery writer Julia Spencer-Fleming at a convention many years ago and complimented her on the way she handles weather in the beautiful, treacherous Adirondacks.  We agreed that if you live – or set your story – where weather can kill you, It’s too important to leave out.

One of my earliest memories is of snowbanks taller than I was. True, I was smaller then but I remember times like this too:

It’s a place where you plan major events like weddings to avoid snow season, if you will have guests traveling distances. Where no one neglects snow tires, salt, snowblower. Where everyone knows someone who was stranded overnight on country roads or the Interstate by an unexpected blizzard. Where every once in awhile, my obscure hometown hit the national news for having the most snow in the entire country.  

Watertown slammed by 3 feet of snow, residents digging out

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

North Country Deals with Winter Blues

By Oniqua Higgins Watertown

Leave out weather? No way.  Even in the summer, I remember news stories of tourists in the Adirondacks, setting off for a lovely walk on a lovely summer day wearing sandals and shorts, getting lost and at great risk in the mountains in the night time cold.

Leave out weather? No way.

In these times, winters are not as ferocious, but this summer, after a rainy spring, the St. Lawrence River is overflowing  and many docks are underwater. Looks like mother nature is up to some new tricks.

There is a writer’s answer to all of this, of course: don’t use weather as a lazy way to fill up a page with description. Write about what it means to the character. Write about how it moves the plot. So I will end with words  from a different master of this genre. Here’s Raymond Chandler,  showing us how it’s done in Red Wind:
 There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”


Donis Casey said...

Since my first 10 books are set in Oklahoma, it would be grossly negligent of me not to write about the weather and how my characters cope!

Triss said...

We think alike!

Ann Parker said...

Great post, and I love your photos, Triss. I agree with you, and Donis too. In my books set in Colorado, weather *always* plays a part... Up in the Rocky Mountains, you ignore weather at your peril. That goes double for my 19th-century characters.