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.