Let’s Talk About The Weather

It’s quite amazing how much time people spend talking – or more often, bitching – about the weather. It’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too miserable, or you’re stuck inside when it’s absolutely beautiful out.

Obviously none of this is particularly relevant if you’re writing science fiction of the exploding spaceship flavor – or any other form of science fiction where much of the tale happens inside spaceships, orbital stations, or other completely artificial environments. Even if said artificial environment has its own ecosystem, the likelihood of there being uncontrolled weather is somewhere around zero. Although it could be fun to set up one that does for a story just to see where it could go.

Of course, the epic quest type of fantasy can have weather out the wazoo, so much that it can be damn near its own character sometimes. Heck, Impaler wasn’t an epic quest, but the weather played a huge part in the story simply because of the logistical difficulties involved in a winter campaign in that era.

That said, if you’re writing the weather, I can guarantee I’m not the only person who’ll get irritated if the weather constantly matches the general mood of the characters you’re following. Or if it constantly counters the general mood.

I may be something of a bitch for this, but I much prefer the weather to be something that’s noticed when it gives someone a reason to bitch – because that’s how we do it in reality. Main character grumbling about snow because he needs to go to the village for something and he really doesn’t want to slog through a foot of the white stuff. Farmer grouching because the spring rains are late and he’s worried he’ll lose his crop. Everyone anxiously watching the sky for signs of rain because they haven’t come across a river in ages and their water supplies are getting dangerously low… That kind of thing.

It helps to look at climatic zones and the kind of weather they typically have at a given time of year. It also helps to find yourself a city that’s in the climate zone in question, and examine its historical weather records for the time of year you’re working with. Knowing that Melbourne weather can be changeable (it’s one of those “just wait five minute” places) isn’t the same as discovering that the temperature can – and will – drop 40 degrees in half an hour when a cold change sweeps though, and that the cold change will usually bring strong south-easterly winds (which haven’t been interrupted by anything except maybe Tasmania in their journey from the Antarctic Circle), heavy rain, and potentially hailstones big enough to knock a person out if they’re dumb enough to stand out in it.

This is what makes weather fun to work with. If you know your climatic disturbances, you can play merry hell with your characters in what would otherwise be relatively dull “they traveled from A to B” kind of narrative, as well as giving you reasons for the characters to be a tad disgruntled, rumpled, and seriously discommoded. Putting them under stress that’s not caused directly by someone also gives you room for character bonding and at times character breaking moments.

So… when you write something that involves outdoors and natural environments, don’t forget to include the weather now and then.

30 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About The Weather

  1. Also don’t forget when writing military fiction that (depending on viewpoint) the reaction to weather may be the exact opposite of a civilian’s. A Finn Colonel in the Winter War would be ecstatic when a blizzard rolls in. A training NCO could be all smiles when a balmy spring day turns to rain and sleet (and he just knows that some silly bugger didn’t think to pack his snivel gear). Etc.

    1. and he also knows some other poor soul will try to roll up his poncho and put it back on his pistol belt while its still wet…

  2. Drought can be as bad as floods for “travel quest” type things, even in motorized eras. Steam engines need water. Droughts dry up reservoirs, which kills tourism as well as fish, although it does make anything hidden below the water easier to find (not always a good idea…) Yeah, your 4X4 vehicle’s not going to bog up to the hubcaps, but you still need water for drinking and sanitation. And then there’s that little problem of a salt crust over the remaining bog, and when your vehicle breaks through…

      1. First I was “But don’t Deep Ones have a lifespan that makes a lake a bit small for a self sustaining population, given population growth?”

        Then the bunnies pointed out that I don’t need that. “Lovecraft. Think in geologic time. Large parts of what is now surface was once immersed. Think a band of survivors of what was for them an apocalypse. Find the right geography, and you can figure out the rest.”

        1. Not to mention given the advent of modern transportation that runs by night and may take suspicious people in body-covering trenchcoats anywhere if they have enough shiny gold, there’s always the possibility they were using it as a vacation spot. 😉

          1. Then the really crazy bunny. Perhaps Lovecraft and the Delta Green folks were wrong.

            If FDR had been working for the Deep Ones, what would he have done differently?

            Look at all those dammed reservoirs he had built.

            You could totally do a Delta Green ish campaign world with an entirely differently perspective on why Delta Green officially broke up and went underground.

              1. All right, you two, get cracking! I want to see at least a short story, if not a novel, about the Deep Ones and their fight with the California … whoever it is, RSN (Real Soon Now!) I mean, you let the plot bunnies hop around, now finish the job…

                1. She’s, IIRC, about finished off an awesome SAO fanfic, and about to start some continuations to a great Kabaneri fic. As for myself, I’m juggling a Swain reread and condensation, which is going to help me sort out the mess I’m in the middle of plotting and outlining. (And was her fault in the first place. And her blog’s commentators.) Part of why it is a mess is that I have not yet really sorted all the neat ideas that seemed to fit, and pared down to the ones I can actually deliver. I can’t fit “actually, FDR’s bureaucratic state was instigated by and a tool of the Deep Ones” into this project, and the idea isn’t shiny enough for me to drop the current project for.

                  On the other hand, the PRC is more of a candidate for being run by freshwater Deep Ones than the USSR, and I do have a antagonist that I’ve only specified as a ‘nefarious Chinaman’.

                  On the gripping hand, I also like Putin as an antagonistic figure, and he is a little old for a credible Deep One hybrid. Really need to trim this down.

                2. *Snrk* The main story idea I had in mind where Deep One tourists might happen, the setting was actually on the East Coast… I’ve never really researched California. Hmm. *Ponders* Any suggestions on good sources?

        2. I don’t remember the name, but there is a really good book out there in which a farmer finds an alien sailboat on the shore of what used to be that giant lake that is the midwest prairie, now.

  3. Weather is also a wonderful way to explore how your characters see the world: an East Coast gent traveling through to Oregon is going to be mighty puzzled when he’s stuck in town in the High Plains due to a thunderstorm with a ferocious downpour – and instead of complaining, the cowboys and farmers are dancing in the streets celebrating.

    A fantasy-minded character may love the way the fog makes the world half-hidden, while her companion who’s fresh back from the front is mighty twitchy because anybody could be circling for ambush.

    One character, who grew up in a forested coastal area, feels trapped out when stuck on a plain full of grass and sky and not much else – the other, who was raised there before a long service in space stations, is jubilant at being able to see and breath and not be hemmed in.

    (I think it was Niven? who introduced a character by having them step off the space elevator for the first time on the ground, and promptly freak out about decompression when smacked by a gust of wind.. it was a great way to introduce the character!)

    1. I once traveled for a short trip with a fellow who grew up in a mountainous area. He was thrilled when we got to the Rockies. And I felt crowded as the horizon wasn’t down where it belongs.

  4. We had the opposite situation yesterday. After several weeks of wet and cold weather, we had an absolutely gorgeous day. Since we’ve been in drought for a few years, and finally are up to “abnormally dry”, people felt relieved that they could enjoy nice weather without having to worry about a drought. I haven’t heard so many people exulting in good weather in ages.

    It’s to the point where people feel they can complain about the rain without the obligatory “but I know we need the water”. I don’t expect it to last, but it’s interesting.

  5. The best thing about bitching about the weather, is that it’s clearly not your fault.
    There’s no “maybe my choices led to this” guilt, it’s all an external force of nature acting upon you.

    So to consistently tie weather to your character’s emotional state in your subcreation, comes across as a violation. A subtle one, that’s hard to put your finger on, but it chafes.
    Certainly, have the weather affect the character’s emotions. I’ve been on horseback watching a squall coming at me in a black wall, knowing the cattle were going to stampede, that I was the tallest lighting target for miles around, and that I’d soon be at risk for hypothermia. A dark and stormy night is a perfect time for men to lose control over their base impulses. A rainbow will gladden any heart (even if only because you’re stuck outside and the rain finally stopped).
    But the other way around? Be careful of that.

    There are also any number of cool regional weather quirks to play with. For instance, in Kentucky I frequently went outside in the morning to see sunshine, and a very thick fog bank only 3′-4′ high. And the sunlight reflecting off the top makes it extra hard to see through. Very pretty, unless you had to drive somewhere. (The dog also loved playing hide and seek in it. Hope the protagonist isn’t running late…)
    Not that it has to be as blatant as all that. I was an adult before I experienced rain being warm, or it getting warmer after the sun goes down.

  6. Another thought…
    We know reality through our perceptions.
    Implicit in the premodern belief in otherworlds is that something which alters our perception, alters our reality.
    At the setting of the sun, and in the misty woods, Faerie waits for the unwary.

  7. I have yet to live in or even visit a place that did NOT claim the weather was apt to change in the next few minutes (that it often does NOT is another matter).

    1. Central Florida, Spring and summer, has a thunderstorm every day. Depending on where in the state you are, it’s either at 1pm, 2pm, or 3pm – but it’s standard. In Venezuela, on the coast, it rains every day at 4pm in the dry season… and what it does during the rainy season is, ah, self-explanatory.

      North Texas, Jun-August, has a remarkable consistency of hot and dry, with plenty of wind. Spring has a remarkable consistency of large squall lines tearing across the plains with tornados embedded.

      1. We have a fairly predictable cycle of weather in S. Central Oregon. Winters depend on the ENSO behavior, but summer thunderstorms are regular features. Afternoon NW winds are the standard, with morning fog in the river bottom about half the time.

        Yeah, conditions might change every 5 minutes, but when you’ve seen the movie a dozen times, you get the plotline.

      2. When I got out of the Marines, I visited my Mother in Central Florida for a week, and LOVED how it rained every single afternoon. So, I moved here*. Only to arrive just in time for a few years of drought, when it didn’t.

        It’s better(ish) now. Although, I’ve come to find out that the amount of rain for that initial weeks visit wasn’t as “normal” as they let on. It doesn’t really rain every single afternoon, just some of them. It’s common enough to be, well, common.

        * OK, I admit. Having my mother here was another pull… as was a drunken night in Illinois when was WAY too cold, and nearly freezing to death (rather literally… Don’t pass out in a camper with no heat in the middle of Illinois winter kids!) I’ve been here for around 20 years, and sometimes I feel like I’m still thawing out.

  8. I went to bible school in Minneapolis after my high school graduation. It was a tiny school but there would be a couple students from churches in Egypt (copts!) or Brazil right along. I got to experience a young man from Brazil seeing snow for the first time. It had started snowing heavily, first snow of the season, and he was looking out the window at it and said something about did it hurt if it got in your eyes. I ran outside and scooped up a handful and ran back in and held it out. He poked it with his finger because he’d really never seen snow before.

    I try to remember that when I think of “spacers” going down to a planet for the first time. Things no one else thinks about will be very front and center, such as how does the air smell? Or rain or snow or… now that I think of it… how about night time?

    1. I like that angle. My mother says my father ran outside to play in the snow the first time he saw it, when he came up to Michigan with her during the winter. He is from the Caribbean, and had never seen snow before then. I like the scene in “Spy Night on Union Station,” where Blythe, who grew up on a space station, tries to convince Aisha, who grew up in India, on the value of intelligence gathering.

      “Did your neighbors think you were spying if you peeked over their fence to see if they had a tsunami in their backyard?”

      Aisha kindly declined to correct Blythe on where she was going wrong with this 🙂

    2. I told a co-worker from Florida that snow went sideways. He laughed and declared that rain did.

      When it was snowing, he stood at the wind staring and saying it was going sideways.

  9. Obviously none of this is particularly relevant if you’re writing science fiction of the exploding spaceship flavor

    There’s always “space weather” for that. Solar radiation, sunspots, meteors. and bears. Oh MY!

    Ok, maybe not bears… but you have to admit, space bears would be pretty neat!

  10. Weather is dangerous.

    If the heroes are doing something time critical, the snow storm that just happens to blow up as they need to go somewhere shows the hand of the author too clearly except with the most skilled use. (And if it’s not time critical, it’s difficult to make it plot-relevant.)

    1. Well, yes. You have to foreshadow with things like the weather being changeable at the time of year and place (“Are you really sure we need to go through Hell Pass? It could get hit with a blizzard any time between now and next April” “Yes, it’s the fastest route. We just have to take the risk” – which of course is a bloody obvious cue that they will get Weather of the worst sort, but a smart author will make said weather surprising somehow – like the blizzard being short and relatively light on snow, but setting off a rockfall obliterating the pass)

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