Writer tricks: weather

Posted: December 24th, 2008 under Contents, the writing life.

When I was writing the first Paksenarrion books (before I knew they were books, back when I thought I was writing a rather long short story….but that’s another bit of history)  I realized early on that I needed some way to make the weather seem realistic.  Though writers get to make stuff up, if they make too much stuff up, or make stuff up the wrong way,  they end up making up what is easiest to deal with.

I don’t remember now when I first noticed this, as a reader, but I do remember somewhere, sometime, reading a book in which the moon was full whenever the writer needed more light at night.  This was our moon, not the moon of some other planet for which a different arrangement might be created.  Our very own moon was full at irregular intervals (and new at others) to suit the need for dark nights or bright nights–and the full moons only ten days apart were noticeable.  (Also, there were no clouds on nights of a full moon. )

Weather is–luckily for writers–more fickle than the moon, but even so you can’t (without risking reader annoyance–alternate blizzards and hurricanes every time you need a bit of excitement.

So how do we make weather realistic?  Or do we?   (That one, you can answer in terms of your own experience.)    Here’s one way.   Define the latitude of the story and the altitude (since both affect weather.)   Find a matching city that reports weather (that you can easily track–much easier now, with internet weather, than it was in the early ’80s…)   and use the weather in that city….or a version of it.  (If they’re having record snowfall, the writer could choose a more moderate one.)   With sufficient experience in moving around, it’s also possible to use local weather (clear, cloudy, precipitation) and adjust it for a different latitude/altitude.

This often proves inconvenient (weather’s good at that) and forces the characters in the story (and the writer!) to cope with “real” weather…but in my experience this is good for the story.   Now that it’s possible to get weather reports worldwide, it’s even easier to get realistic weather sequences for almost any terrain/climate range/etc.

Sometimes, though, the writer really needs (for sound reasons) a specific event to occur in a specific kind of weather.  Once per book (in my books) I let myself manipulate the weather without using my reference location (s).    So if we really need that shaft of sunlight glinting off a buried whatsis,  it will happen.

Weather is a great aid in controlling travel speed, by the way, especially for non-motorized travel (or motorized travel off paved roads.)    If it usually takes five days to ride from A to B, but you need your character delayed so that he/she misses connection with another character….and you’ve established that in this season storms do cause flash flooding that makes fords impassable for a day…then when the thunderstorm rises over the horizon, and your character spurs toward the stream, hoping to get across…and doesn’t….it’s a believable obstacle.

Weather reveals character (just look at me in some weathers, when my sinuses act up and I have a whopping headache…!)  and a character’s reaction to weather–how they react to it, in what degree–can cue readers to their hardiness and their probable resilience in the face of other unexpected things the writer will throw at them.   Some people enjoy wild weather; others fear it.  Some like wet weather; some like living in the desert.

A writer’s own experience of weather (and weather preferences)  will color the way weather’s handled, though we can sometimes disguise that.   I learned to enjoy snow as an adult, but I choose to live in a warmer climate than I write about.   Those who want to write books that involve weather (and, aside from stories set in spaceships and space stations, that’s everyone) should experience weather in different places, and go out and get wet/cold/hot sometimes.  I found that having hiked and camped in various locations and weathers was a big help in writing the Paks books…even backyard sleep-outs gave me experience that’s been useful, and the longer trips added details that you just can’t make up without having been there.

Weather, like every other element of setting–from the rocks up–needs to feel real to readers, and whatever tricks writers use to get the realistic effect, the only validation is the reader’s belief that it makes sense…that it feels right.

(In real life, the sun is out and we’re still in a deep drought.)

1 Comment »

  • Comment by AnthonyA — May 16, 2011 @ 5:58 pm


    In addition to weather, I enjoy the fact that in your books, you also go out of your way to note that based on climate, there are different species of plants/trees/fruit in various regions, giving larger breadth to Paks’ world (apples only north of the Dwarfmounts).


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