Posted by: kshayes513 | December 19, 2008

Snowed In

It’s a beautiful night here in New England–as long as you don’t need to go anywhere! The snow is falling about an inch an hour, near as I can guess, the air feels soft except for the tiny sting of snowflakes on my cheek, and the world is very still, with all sounds muffled by five inches (so far) of new snow. In the light of the Christmas lights and street lights, all the snow that’s not in shadow glows a soft, warm amber.

Weather is one of the most effective ways to anchor your audience into the reality of an imaginary world. I don’t think I’m saying this just because I’m a weather junkie. Creating believable weather matters, because we humans still think and talk about weather every day, even if we no longer live or work out the weather: too hot, too muggy, too cold, too rainy, too windy, too much weather

Our obsession with complaining about the weather is also the reason it’s not enough just to describe how your world’s weather looks. Brown dust storm clouds, bright green sunny skies, grim gray fogs–we can imagine how those look, but they don’t put us in the world. We need to know how the weather feels to the inhabitants, what the main characters think about it, how it changes their mood or their choices or their options. What does the dust of a Martian dust storm taste like? How does the fog smell, and how much will it help or hinder the hero’s quest?

In a preindustrial world, the weather is far more important than a matter of personal comfort to the characters. It will affect the economy of the whole society: good winds or storms for the trading ships, the rain and sun and warm and cold in the right amount and the right time for the farmers and herders, good weather for armies to move around, winters to shut down the regional war. This kind of weather data is as much a part of the culture as religion or magic, and should be woven into the everyday awareness of the characters.

Even if you’re creating an indoor environment, you can’t get away from weather. Interior spaces of all kinds have their own weather, like the smoke in a hall with a central hearth, the way fresh, recirculated air moves around a spacecraft, the choking smell of damp in that scary basement.

Your world may well have powers that can change the natural weather, like the mages of Earthsea, or some superadvanced science that can turn aside a tornado or bring rain to the drought stricken. Have fun with those powers (who wouldn’t want the power to turn Katrina away from the Big Easy?), just  make sure the science or the magic interact in a believable way with the world’s weather, and most important, that they have real, clearly explained limitations–no weather miracles (unless gods are involved, but that’s another discussion!).

There are, of course, places in the world, mostly tropical ones, where the weather seems unchanging: warm, sunny, with a light breeze, day after day after day. So if you don’t want to deal with weather, you might try setting your story in a climate like Hawaii or Southern California or the mountains of central Mexico. As long as you remember that in places,  like these, a change in the weather is usually a big change: flooding rains, drought and wildfires, hurricanes. You can’t get away from weather!

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