Friday, 20 January 2012

'Whether Weather Matters' by A. L. Berridge


I write historical fiction, which means I get paid for being an Anorak. People understand it’s my job to care when the sun set in Paris on June 15th 1639, what phase the moon was in, or the time of high tide. The only time they seem to stare is when I explain I'm trying to find out about the weather.

Captain Mercer in the rain at Waterloo (Cranston Fine Arts)
I can understand that. It somehow sounds so British to be writing about world-changing history and to care whether it was raining at the time. Yet weather itself is world-changing, and history would have taken a completely different course had its effects been otherwise. Who would have won the Battle of Waterloo if it hadn’t rained? Who would have won at Mons if it had? What would have happened at Trafalgar if the wind hadn’t dropped? Would Captain Scott have survived without that last blizzard?  Would we…could we…what would…? We’re talking Alternative History here, because History is what History did, and what history did depended hugely on the weather.

And that can be a problem – because surely it’s my characters and plotting that should determine what happens, rather than an outside force that’s completely beyond my control. It can also be extremely frustrating (in every sense) when a planned romantic romp in a cornfield has to be replaced by a grope in a dingy barn because of an accident of historical weather.

To some extent I can work round it by craftily scheduling scenes to occur in the right seasons, but we don’t always have that flexibility. For my hero’s return to Paris at the end of ‘In the Name of the King’ I wanted a bleak and leafless day to contrast with the hopeful sunshine of the beginning – only to find I’d boxed myself into a corner with the unmoveable date of the Battle of Rocroi, and that my Autumn Scene would have to be played in June.
But in the end it didn’t matter, and the time of year even gave me the final image I’d been looking for – the gleam of sunshine on the blade of a sword as it spun above the smoke of Paris into the blueness of the sky. The truth is that my first plan was dull and obvious, but being forced to deal with reality gave me something that was better than my own imagining.


It’s actually rather worrying how often that happens. ‘In the Name of the King’ has a horrible scene of an amende honorable, when one of my characters is forced to humiliate himself by parading in the Place de Grève dressed only in a shirt – but it was research, not imagination, that made me see how much worse it would be in the freezing slush of recent snow. My latest novel, ‘Into the Valley of Death’, deals with the battle of Inkerman – but it was reality, not my own idea, that the whole thing should have taken place in thick fog. Fog! The confusion of it, the muffling of sound, the moisture in the air and in the powder – could there be a greater gift to a writer? My story involves a mysterious figure whose identity grows more elusive as my characters try to hunt him down – and could there be a better setting for the denouement than the shifting of shadow into substance in the drifting of mist? Mess that one up, Berridge – I dare you.

From 'The Battle of Inkerman' by Louis-William Desanges
But even if the weather works against my story rather than for it, there’s still a pleasure in playing it for real. My characters aren’t my puppets, they’re real people at the mercy of the elements of their own time, and so (of course) are we. We have electricity to make us independent of sun and moon, and our shipping can ignore both wind and tide, but even the famous Weather Modification Scheme can’t really protect us from weather. Clever as we are, we’re still the ‘bare forked animal’ that Lear was when Nature decides it wants a storm, a hurricane – or a tsunami.


The novel I’m working on at the moment begins with that. This is the sequel to ‘Into the Valley of Death’, and picks up the Crimean War after Inkerman when the British forces were left encamped outside Sevastopol to endure the horrors of winter without proper clothing, shelter, food or transport, and with months to wait before relief could reach them. They were dying of cold, of cholera, dysentery, and frankly of starvation – and then the hurricane came. Weather isn’t just the background to this story – in this case it is the story, and if I care about history at all then that’s the one I want to tell.


But no-one would complain about my including a real-life hurricane in my story - the Nerd Factor only really comes in when I’m trying to find out about weather that had no obvious effects on the story. Yet I think that matters too. Weather always makes a difference. Consider even the wedding of Charles and Diana as a historical event – and see how different it would have been if it had rained. What about our own weddings? Our daughter’s graduation? Our first date? If the weather had been different, then the day would have been so too, and probably our mood right along with it.


That’s true of our characters too, and when I write a scene with ‘real’ weather then I’m that much closer to sharing what it was like. In ‘In the Name of the King’ my characters go on the march with an army – and how could I write this without knowing the weather? As the cavalry horses ride past, is that dust in my characters’ faces – or mud? Are they wet? Hot? Thirsty? Historical writers are expected to know what kind of food our characters eat, what clothes they wear and what homes they live in, so shouldn’t we know these other things too? Weather’s like any other part of research – it tells us what it was like to be there.


The problem, of course, is that it’s even harder to find out. There’s a terrifying lack of meteorological data available for previous centuries, and an internet site promising ‘historical weather’ might easily refer only to last week. A few show weather patterns of major significance (like this one on British Winters) but if anyone out there knows a good, reliable source of detail I would be desperately grateful to learn of it. In the absence of official records, scientists at Old Weather.Org are trying to recreate the past through examining old ships’ logs, but otherwise they have to work just as we do: picking up clues from the informal accounts of ordinary people – the letters, diaries, memoirs and court transcripts that tell future generations far more than their writers could ever have imagined.

Diary entries of Richard Hall, Oct 1784 http://georgiangentleman.posterous.com/77052293
As our own would. Looking back at my father’s diaries, I’m struck by how regularly he mentions the weather, and also by how immediately those descriptions recall the whole day. And that, to me, is another reason why I want to use weather in my novels. Readers don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be tortured, to fight a duel, to flounce around in a crinoline or make a fire with flint and steel, but we all know weather. If I read that my Crimean characters are wet and cold then I know how they felt and can make sure my readers know too. These are universal things, easily recognizable, and they can draw us together across the span of hundreds of years.


I’ll be thinking of that as I start writing the Crimean winter, and am rather glad I’ll be doing it just as the January cold begins to bite. Except that I’m not really an Anorak, or at least not a total one - and I intend to leave the heating firmly switched on.

*****

17 comments:

Sue Purkiss said...

I certainly consider the weather - and use it - particularly if it's the relatively recent past and I know there will be records - but I hadn't hitherto given it as much consideration as this. Really interesting post - thank you!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for a great post on an often-overlooked subject. Weather - you're so right about its importance on human lives! For a book I never ended up writing, I once knew about as much as there was to be known about the weather (and very cold winter) of 1870 - it really borught the streets to life to know just what you'd have encountered as you walked down your front steps on, say, February the 4th! And I'm encouraged as (right now) I try to work out not just the weather, but the climate of Britain over a hundred and seventy years in the future...

alberridge said...

Thanks so much, Sue - you make me feel less of a freak!
I have to admit there are advantages in writing older history - it's often impossible to know the weather so I'm totally free to make it up!
Making it up is good too. :)

alberridge said...

Thank you, Kath - and that's such an important point about the streets. Fewer people, more people, umbrellas, parasols, more sedan chairs, fewer cabs, belisha beacon bright in the fog, people sheltering under shopfront canopies and getting in the way, floating debris in the gutters - ooh, it's ages since I wrote a street scene and I'm getting withdrawal.

Fascinating about the climate of the future. I can't wait to see what you make of that.

sue laybourn said...

If my patchy memory serves me right, there's a saying: "Geography is the mother of history." I take geography to include weather.

Not only does it have a bearing on events for those who are writing historical stories, it's also one of my favourite tools for setting the mood or tone of a scene.

I'm about to dive into the second of a series (m/m romance). The book is set in England (mainly Wiltshire) from 1888 to 1891. There was a huge blizzard in south west England in the winter of 1891 and that will definitely play a part in the climax of the story.

Sincerely,
Sue
Brit and Total Weather Nerd.

Helen Hollick said...

weather is extremely important - as you say above, many a battle would have had a different outcome if the weather had been different (the Battle of Hastings is another one - the Normans would not have won had it rained that day and English history would have followed a completely different course)
I also think describing the weather in a novel sets the scene, because it helps the reader relate to what is going on.
I think writers should be a little more inventive at times though - not just "it was a bright, sunny day" or "the rain poured down" - and remember too, that weather changes during the day.
A good friend of mine, author Linda Proud, mentioned that she was going to keep a weather diary so that when writing she could look back to see what the weather had been doing.
I took this one step further and started a Weather Diary Blog
http://weatherwisediary.blogspot.com/
I have kept it for over a year now - and have also invited two good friends to join me, Cathy lives in the US & Deborah is situated in Spain. It's fascinating to see how the miles between affect the weather of the day.
Writers are more than welcome to use the diary if they wish!

alberridge said...

Thanks for posting, Not-in-the-least-Nerdy Sue. And that quote 'Geography is the mother of history is new to me, but it opens up a goldmine of information if you try it in google.Thanks very much for that!
Favourite tools - yes to that too. I loves me a good 'pathetic fallacy', I do.

And Helen - that's brilliant. I didn't know about Hastings, but it's a better example than the ones I gave.

And I agree about dull weather descriptions. I think they're justifiable if you want to make the reader feel everything's ordinary - as in Orwell's inspired 'It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen' - but otherwise we can do better. No day is ordinary - or at least not when a writer's finished with it...

Your blog proves that too. Very evocative - thank you for sharing.

Katherine Ashe said...

Weather of course can be crucial in history, and a part of the causal thread that the writer who is exploring how actual events happened must consider. Incessant rain brought on famine and disease in England in 1258, leading to probably more widespread support of revolution than would have happened in fine weather. Weather may also simply add to the "reality" of a scene, but like any other kind of description, when over done, it can be merely a drag on a book's pace.

alberridge said...

Agreed, Katherine. We've been looking at mainly military history so far, but you're right, the effects of a bad harvest could ultimately be of greater significance. I suspect 'political' and 'economic' history can very rarely be separated.

And 'overdone' - yes, it absolutely can be, especially if it's not enhancing the story. When it IS, however, even the page and a half of fog description at the start of 'Bleak House' doesn't seem to me excessive. But then that's Dickens...

madwippitt said...

But what happened to poor Anna, Eliza and Patty? You can't leave us on a cliffhanger like that!

ediFanoB said...

I read your inspiring and thought provoking post.

Weather - What does it mean?

"The state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, cloudiness, moisture, pressure, etc. Weather refers to these conditions at a given point in time (e.g., today's high temperature), whereas Climate refers to the "average" weather conditions for an area over a long period of time (e.g., the average high temperature for today's date)."
(http://weather.gov/glossary/index.php?word=weather)

We talk about it every day. We watch the weather report. We are longing for weather forecasts.
Weather has definitely an influence on our life. And when we look back in time we will easily detect its importance especially during wars and battles. Let me give you just two examples: Normandy Landings 1944 and The Battle of Waterloo 1815. But if you would like to know the weather on a certain day in the past it is getting difficult to get proper data.
That leads to the question why do we need that information. In fantasy and science fiction it is up to the author to think about it. He or she decide if weather is important or not.
It is getting difficult when we look at historical fiction. Imagine you want to write a book set in London, first week of September 1666 . If you would write that there have been heavy showers the whole week, you would change history because you would drown the Great Fire! In reality the weather report looked as followed: Sunday 2nd September 1666 Weather Report - hot, dry and windy [Source]. I think that shows the importance of weather in historical fiction.

I look forward to read 'In the Name of the King' and 'Into the Valley of Death'.
I will especially have a look at the weather conditions ....

elizabethashworth.com said...

My forthcoming novel An Honourable Estate is set during the Great Famine of 1315 to 1317 and the politics of that time were influenced by the weather and its effects. I don't think Edward II would have been viewed as such a 'bad' king if the sun had shone more.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Weather is definitely important! I once wrote a short story for an antho'ogy, set in Melbourne, 1969, on the day of the moon landing. My hero had missed the landing on TV due to circumstances beyond his control, but could he and his grandfather look through a telescope that night, at least? Fortunately, I could check that through newspapers of the time which described the weather that day and night - and yes, it was indeed clear. :-)

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