How To Start A Story 1: Don’t Mention The Weather
It’s usually a bad sign when a novel opens with a description of the weather. With so many ways available of capturing the reader’s attention, why start with one we can all see?
The exception is the famous opening of ‘Bleak House’ (which I parodied in the opening of ‘The Burning Man’), because Dickens manages to surprise within a few words with his image of a dinosaur through Holborn’s mud. But literary weather, signs of it, omens and portents, feature in everything from ‘Jane Eyre’ to ‘The Ancient Mariner’.
In the story ‘The Wood-For-The-Trees’, Phillip Macdonald describes an English rural landscape, grey tinged with a black sky, and makes us jump when a ‘florin-sized raindrop’ smacks onto a seat. It’s a warning of sinister troubles to come and works beautifully.
Weather creates mood and implies safety, danger, coming trouble; I use it a lot in the Bryant & May series. Londoners have a great many words for rain. Skies are usually so occluded that they drain all colour from the landscape, so you have to make the characters colourful.
London’s summer weather is the very definition of instability, and the pattern is always the same; clear skies in the evening followed by a warm day, then unbearable mugginess and a downpour. The character of the nation is similarly unstable; rarely calm, too fidgety, often unsettled. Weather changes people.
We are frequently tempted to describe natives of the Northern hemispheres as ‘dour’ – yet they soon become warm-hearted and kind after ‘warming’ to someone new. They invite them in. We constantly apply hot and cold adjectives to people. The long hot summer days in the countries of the Med, steady and fiercely bright, are reflected in the relaxed manner of people who belie their image as ‘hot blooded Latins’ (with the exception of voluble, twitchy urban Italians).
Fiestas, feasts and Catholic celebrations in hot countries feature open-air events predicated around reliable weather, while in inclement countries religious days are held inside and pass unmarked by fireworks or bonfires. And so religious attitudes change. Weather affects everything yet is often overlooked as a writing tool.
The image of the Aussie or Texas gathering may be a barbecue, while in England it’s tea, where the concept of a barbecue is something that involves half a dozen people sheltering in a doorway while one man in a rain-mac waves a lighter at wet charcoal. Thus is national character formed. England is an indoor society; it talks to itself about ideas. Characters in Victorian novels over-share their feelings (and in many modern New York novels too).
My fascination and annoyance with weather is one reason why I’ve pretty much always lived in two countries; Light and shade, heat and rain create opposing moods that powerfully affect what we write about. Extreme heat, which I’ve been dealing with in ‘The Sand Men’, is as frightening as any flood or storm.
In ‘Just The Very Thing They Wanted’ by Dino Buzatti a touring couple visit a small town in the merciless heat and find themselves denied the most basic human rights: to sit down, to drink, to rest. It’s a disturbing image to anyone who has been overtired and miles from home. In ‘Kolymsky Heights’ by Lionel Davidson, extreme cold changes the character of the hero.
Shakespeare could use weather as a weapon. Take this passage from King Lear;
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou all-shaking thunder
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
The curse of the writer is cliche, and the weather brings out the worst in many. Yet weather descriptions are useful and can be made fresh by the writer simply noting what she smells, sees and tastes in different weathers. Rain in London smells of wet stone. Hot days in Latin countries smell of vegetable matter, food, sewers, flowers. Yet it’s surprising how few writers trust their senses to describe atmospheric conditions.
So unless you have a genuinely unique way of perceiving weather conditions, don’t open a book with it.