14 June 2016

Warning! There's a Storm Coming!

We've all heard the famous advice--never start your story with the weather. Horrors! The weather! Run for your lives!
Actually, if a story began with a storm brewing so horrifically that people were actually running for their lives, that would be a good start. It would have action. Drama. It would draw the reader in.

But then there's the other way to start with weather, and it's the reason for the weather taboo: the dreaded story that begins with tons and tons of description, including about the weather, but no action. Imagine: Jane Doe awoke. She stretched her shoulders, looked out the window, and relished the bright rays of sunshine streaming down from the cloudless blue sky. It would be a lovely day, Jane knew. The high should be about seventy-five degrees, breezy. No chance of showers. Maybe she would barbecue tonight. It shouldn't be humid out there. It should just be delightful.

By this point, your eyes are probably glazing over. Or you want to strangle Jane for being so boring. When you use the weather this way, setting your scene yet having nothing happening, you are basically asking your reader to find something else to read. Anything else. Cereal box, anyone?

Yet imagine another opening to Jane's day: Thunder clapped, rattling the windows and scaring Jane Doe awake. Holy hell. Thunder in January? She trudged to the window. It was snowing like crazy out there. They hadn't predicted snow, but there had to be more than two feet on the ground. Jane's stomach sunk. She was alone and really low on food. Meals for Wheels would never be able to make it in this weather. Not for days, probably. Maybe a week. Or
more. She should have known something like this might happen again after the blizzard of 2010. She should have prepared. What would she do when the food ran out? What? Just then, her bird started chirping. Arthur. Sweet, friendly, beautiful Arthur. She loved him, just as she had loved Squeaky back in 2010. He had tasted unexpectedly good.

Now you may be grossed out, but you certainly shouldn't be bored. And that's the point: if you use the weather in order to propel the story forward, then it's a good use. With this idea in mind, two years ago, Donna Andrews, Marcia Talley, and I put out a call for stories for Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. We told the members of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime to come up with crime short stories that put the weather front and center. And, boy, did they come through.

Stories were chosen by a team of seasoned authors (former SleuthSayer David Dean, current SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens, and Sujata Massey). The choices were made blindly, meaning the story pickers didn't know who had written each submission. Donna, Marcia, and I then began our editing process (we take a long time with the stories--they all go through multiple drafts).

Finally, the book came out in the last week of April. It has fifteen stories featuring crime mixed in with rain storms, blizzards, hurricanes, sleet, and even a shamal. You want a murder during a white-out at a ski resort. We have that. How about a locked-room murder mystery at a zoo's snake house, where people are stuck inside while a storm rages outside? We've got that too. We have stories of revenge and stories of guilt. Stories featuring characters on the fringes of society and stories featuring well-off expats. And in all the stories, the weather sets the mood and propels the action in ways you won't expect. That's the way to use the weather, as a vehicle to move the plot forward and set the mood.

I use the weather both ways in my story in the book, "Stepmonster," in which a heartbroken, enraged daughter seeks revenge long after her father's death while a storm rages on. The pouring rain sets a dark atmosphere, as the object of revenge cowers in fear, and the thunder offers a nice cover for certain ... sounds.

I'd love to hear about your favorite books or stories that put the weather to good use. Please share in the comments. And Storm Warning authors, please drop in to let the readers know about your stories.

And, finally, I'd like to give a shout-out to fellow SleuthSayers who were nominated for the Macavity Award on Saturday: Art Taylor for best first mystery for On the Road with Del and Louise, and B.K. Stevens for best short story for "A Joy Forever" from the March 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. (I'm also up for best short story--yay!--for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February 2015 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.) You can read B.K.'s story here. And you can read my story by clicking here. I'm trying to get links for all the stories together for Janet Rudolph, the woman behind the Macavity Award. I'll let you all know if and when that happens.


  1. It was a dark and stormy night... -- Good post, Barb, and good points about opening with weather. I get tired of all the dos and don'ts, like that or don't open with a prologue. The story should dictate those things, but as you say, should also be interesting.

  2. congratulations on your nomination and best of luck with the anthology!

  3. Um... did you have to name that bird Arthur?

    Seriously: Enjoyed the post, and thanks for the shout-out on the Macavity. Congrats to you and Bonnie as well!


  4. I enjoyed your post, Barb (though not necessarily the part about Jane's blizzard menu). As one of the judges for STORM WARNING, I can second what you say about the stories. There's plenty of variety, plenty of good reading. Thanks for inviting me to be a judge--and thanks for mentioning the Macavity nomination, too.

  5. It's evening here on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, and temperatures are dropping to a breezy, slightly gritty 110 degrees. It was an odd assignment, to make the weather interesting in a mystery story, and indeed to make it essential to the tale. I'm so grateful that you and our Chessie sisters came up with the idea! Thanks, Barb.

  6. Good post, Barb! It's a very *cool* collection and I'm proud to be a part of it! As for my story: Have you ever wanted to hold a meteorologist accountable for his/her rotten forecasts? Well...

  7. Interesting anthology.I have yet to use a weather incident in any story,but I won't rule it out for the future...in fact, reading this made me waiver between considering NEVER using one and having the idea put in a drawer in my mind!

  8. There isn't a rule that can't be broken, if done the right way. Good points here. Enjoyed reading the post--and the anthology sounds great, too.

  9. Thanks for the comment, Paul. The dos and don'ts are important as guidelines. But you're right, you should always find out why you should or shouldn't do (or not do) something, so you can understand when the rule might not apply.

    Thanks, Janice and Diana. Much appreciated.

    Art(thur), I promise I wasn't thinking of you when I thought up that bird. Really. Truly. ... Maybe. ;)

    Bonnie, when you're out of food, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. I'm just glad I'm not that girl. Poor bird. In other news, thank you for your work on Storm Warning. You, David, and Sujata chose some great stories.

    Kim, thanks for stopping by. Kim wrote the shamal story in the book. Not only is it a great story, but I learned the word "shamal" from it.

    Alan, you have such a wonderful story title: "Stormy, With a Chance of Murder." (The story is pretty good too!) It was so fun to work with you on it.

    Tonette, definitely consider using the weather in the future. It can be a great catalyst for action.

  10. Thanks for stopping by, J.R. And yes, every rule can be broken if done right.

  11. Barb, this sounds like a great anthology. Congrats to you and to all the included writers!

  12. Barb, what a great concept for an anthology. (I've been known to break a few rules.) With your great post and the fabulous authors and editors involved, I can't wait to read it! Congratulations to you, B.K. and Art on your Macavity nominations.

  13. I'm so pleased to have my story FROZEN ASSETS included in the anthology along with such accomplished authors! It was fun to write the story, and even more fun to see it in the anthology.

    Congrats to our talented and hardworking sisters and misters for the nominations!

  14. Barb, I love your posts about writing because of the way you show us what to do and what not to do!
    Are we going to see a story about Squeaky and Arthur?

  15. Great post, Barb!

    I'm so excited that my story, "The Storm in the Teacup" is included in this delightful anthology.

    The stories prove that there a great many ways to include weather in a story without being boring.

  16. There's no question many of my students start with the weather because they have no idea *where* to start! Really fun post, Barb. I love Jane already. (Although you might want to change her last name :)

  17. I want Squeaky! I want Squeaky!
    Great post, Barb!

  18. Thanks for your kind words, John. I wonder what Angela Potts would do if there were a murder during a blizzard in her neck of the woods. (Heck, I do know. She would solve the case!)

    Thanks for stopping by, Nancy. I hope you like the book. And thanks to you and K.M. for the congrats about the Macavitys. It's truly an honor to have your work appreciated.

    Speaking of appreciation, K.M., you wrote an excellent story in the anthology with an animal character that fares far better than Squeaky (thank goodness). It was good to work with you.

    So, Shari and Eve, you want more Squeaky. It would have to be a prequel because, well ... poor Squeaky. Poor delicious Squeaky. (The local shelter probably won't let Jane adopt any more birds.)

    Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Shari, Linda, Melodie, and Eve. I had fun writing it. And Linda, you have such a different, unexpected story, with an ending that really sticks with you. I'm glad it's in the book. Everyone, don't miss "The Storm in the Teacup" by Linda Ensign.

    And finally, Melodie, yes I'm sure a lot of students (heck a lot of writers) start with the weather because they haven't figured out how to start the story. It's the same reason a lot of people start a story with the main character waking up. The start of the day feels like a good beginning. But as I often tell people, you need to add some action to any mundane activity, especially waking up, or else it should come out. I don't want to read about someone getting out of bed and brushing her teeth unless someone will strangle her while she's doing it or has poisoned her toothpaste.

  19. Barb, You sooo make me want to read these stories. Wind is my favorite sort of weather. Sometimes I swear there are words coming through it. Great post!

  20. I think Craig Johnson in The Cold Dish and Julia Spencer Fleming in In The Bleak Midwinter both do an amazing job using weather. Great post!

  21. Thanks, Susan and Sherry. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. Susan, I love wind too. It can be so spooky.

    And Sherry, I love both of those books. Thinking about the snow storm in each of them makes me cold. (Or is that the air conditioning blowing on me? No, it's the books.)


  22. Barb, you said it as well as it can be said. Even Elmore Leonard, who gets credit for the “Don't start with the weather” rule, qualified it in the expanded version of his 10 Rules of Writing by saying,

    “There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”

    Another rule tells us not to use a prologue. I never did. . .until recently. A story I'm working on absolutely cried out for a prologue, so I gave it one.

    Whenever the subject of rules for writing comes up, I always remember there's only one rule that is truly set in stone, engraved in granite, and carved in quartz:

    Whatever works best.

  23. You said it, Earl. Thanks for stopping by.


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