Nov 14 2017 2:00pm

The Weather Outside Is Frightful: Using Weather to Enhance Setting

Read Emily Littlejohn's guest post about using weather events to enhance setting, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of her second Detective Gemma Monroe novel, A Season to Lie!

“It was a dark and stormy night…”

Though it is much parodied and oft-mocked, aspiring mystery writers would do well to study the opening sentence of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford. Why? Because it works. It’s instantly relatable. With just seven words, the reader immediately understands the setting and can imagine the scene.

Weather is a great equalizer in fiction. Consider a further example: 

The detective chased the man, barely conscious of the slick street, unfazed by the torrential summer downpour driving pedestrians and bicyclists to take cover. In minutes the rain ceased. The steamy July swelter returned and still the two men ran.

The story’s location could be anywhere, from Los Angeles to Beijing to Mumbai. It is the weather—the rain, the humidity—that is familiar. The reader feels the oppressiveness of the heat, the wetness of the downpour.

From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mist-covered moors to the cyclone in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, weather sets the stage for novels. Weather events are uncontrollable. We can predict them and experience them. We can study them until the cows come home, but we cannot control them. And there’s something mysterious about that lack of control—something romantic, suspenseful.

Mystery writers especially have a long tradition of presenting dark, bleak weather as an omnipresent character in their novels. Part of the enjoyment of a good mystery is imagining yourself beside the hero, stalking the villain, moving about in the shadows.

Two books that take advantage of winter’s chill are Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman and John Sandford’s Winter Prey. In The Snowman—the seventh in Nesbo’s Norwegian series—Detective Harry Hole tracks a serial killer who inexplicably leaves a unique calling card: a snowman, made from the first snow of the season. Half a world away, Winter Prey takes us to the frozen northern woods of Wisconsin where lawman Lucas Davenport hunts the Iceman, a vicious killer who favors a machete and is likely a local. This is the fifth book in Sandford’s Prey series, and both the mystery and the frigid environment deliver plenty of chills. And—no kidding—Davenport meets up with an intriguing and attractive doctor by the name of … wait for it … Weather Karkinnen.

But perhaps glistening white snow splattered with fresh scarlet blood isn’t appealing. If instead you’re looking for mysteries set in warmer climes, consider The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke and Stormy Weather by Carl Hiassen. Both stories take place in the immediate aftermath of crippling hurricanes, and you’ll find little to no mention of snowmen and blizzards.

Burke’s novel—the 16th in the excellent Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux series—finds Robicheaux deployed from New Iberia to the bleak, desperate reality that is post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. The streets are flooded. The destruction is devastating. And everyone—crooks, priests, and the common folk in between—is just trying to survive. This is not a light book; the crimes are as horrific as the living conditions. For a real treat, listen to the audiobook narrated by the incomparable Will Patton. From the first words, his melodious voice plants you firmly in Louisiana and keeps you there for the duration of the story.

Finally, if you’re looking for lighter fare, check out Carl Hiassen’s Stormy Weather—the third in his Skink series. Hiassen takes us to South Florida where Hurricane Andrew has left things in a mess. Hiassen’s appeal is simple: his bad guys are bad, his good guys are good, and when the dust has cleared, each gets what’s coming to them. You’ll laugh out loud at his vivid descriptions and zany characters. Escaped zoo animals, unexpected love affairs, and double- and triple-crosses round out the plot.

Read an excerpt from Emily Littlejohn's second Detective Gemma Monroe novel, A Season to Lie!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of A Season to Lie by Emily Littlejohn!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your username appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your username appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

A Season to Lie Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2017/11/the-weather-outside-is-frightful-using-weather-to-enhance-setting-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) November 14, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 12:59 p.m. ET November 28, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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Emily Littlejohn is the author of the Detective Gemma Monroe mysteries series, set in the fictional town of Cedar Valley, Colorado. Her first novel, Inherit the Bones, received critical acclaim and was a Colorado Book Award Finalist. The second in the series, A Season to Lie, will be released November 14th, 2017.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Halil cakir
1. h.ibrahim.cakir@yandex.com
I first read smt on importance of weather in crime scene in Grange's "blood red rivers" and found it so interesting. I will check the book.
Jackie Wisherd
5. JackieW
I like it when authors write about the climate because it helps to put the reader into the story. I know I would enjoy reading this book.
6. Carl Scott
Thanks for the insights, I'd love to win a copy of the book. Have a great week!
Janet West
10. janetwest
I would love to win this book. These are my favorite genre.
Janet West
10. janetwest
I would love to win this book. These are my favorite genre.
Margot Core
11. AnnaZed
Tis' the season indeed! I would like to cozy up to this mystery.
Barbara Bolam
12. Toodles
I agree, weather sets a scene in books, movies, etc. I would love to read this book it sounds so-o-o interesting.
Gwen Ellington
14. mamadonie02
Weather! Yes, something important to read about. Yay!
Lori Provenzano
15. Mountainesque
Effectively done, weather is a memorable character unto itself!
Michael Carter
16. rubydog
Baby it's cold outside, but warm if I win.
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Autumn Trapani
17. aut1063@gmail.com
Great post and a lot of good recommendations! Thanks for the chance to win!
Carol Lawman
25. juju2cat
I love lots of background information in a book, especially weather. God Bless Mother Nature....
Carole Knoles
26. carknol
Weather- a mood maker in literature as it is in real life.
susan beamon
27. susanbeamon
I guess I don't pay attention to the weather in books or in real life. It's thereand that's that.
Susan Morris
28. Samfor3
Thank you for the chance to win this book. Cold winter nights are great to snuggle up with a good read.
Laurent Latulippe
33. krag48
Very interesting. I look forward to reading it.
35. Polly Barlow
Weather can set the scene for a good mystery. I would like to read Emily Littlejohn's book and see how she uses the weather.
Barbara Bates
36. BadBarbie
Sounds interesting! Would love to win this book!
Christine Smiga
38. ceecee76
The Shining would still have been scary, but not nearly as terrifying without all of the snow.
Marisa Young
39. Risa
Had never really thought about weather in books until reading this article.
Jane Schwarz
41. Janeschwarz
I also enjoy stories that center within and around weather. It makes the characters and plot more intense. Thank you for the opportunity to win "A Season to Lie".
Carolyn Sherve
42. CWS
Well written description of the weather always add to the atmosphere of the story line. This book sounds good!
Sandy Klocinski
46. attea2d
Interesting Info! I would love to read this book. Have a great Thanksgiving!
48. jpl123456
Weather effects every thing & description in books can & does enhance every situation from humour to murder.
51. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
Tammy Z Evans
52. tzevans
I am so excited for the chance to read this, can't wait.
53. deborah buffamanti
Works for me!
Sandra Slack
56. mz.pembroke
Oh weather so sets the mood, especially for murders, lol...
57. LStirling
I agree, weather plays an important role in stories. It can greatly enhance a scene.
Lorena Keech
60. llkee
Sounds like an interesting book, look forward to reading it.
Lorena Keech
60. llkee
Sounds like an interesting book, look forward to reading it.
61. Stephanie Liske
Thank you.
Linda Leonard
64. linsleo1
Quite an excerpt! You're right, weather does draw you in at the very beginning. It really sets the stage. Thanks for the opportunity to read "A Season to Lie".
68. Leela
Thanks for the giveaway!
Linda Peters
69. linnett
This would be a great read for the cold winter days, thanks
Brandy Schwartz
70. brandy4598
Thanks for the giveaway! I would love to read this one.
Betty Curran
72. willitara
So many great stories use weather as a significant part of the story line.
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