Weather in stories, with thanks to Snoopy

Stifling weather…

As we’re sweltering in this hot weather, I thought it might be interestng to blog about weather and writing. With a nod to the patron saint of writers, Charles M Schultz‘s wonderful Snoopy. That’s the Snoopy who longs to be a bestselling writer and who always—well, nearly always—begins his stories with his tried and tested formula about the weather.Snoopy start with weather: it was a dark and stormy nightTo be fair, there are variants and I had fun searching them out. With a grateful acknowledgement to Schultz and the Peanuts strip, here are a couple of weather variants you might enjoy. First there’s subtleSnoopy applies subtlety to the weatherThen there’s a different approach

Never start a story with the weather…?

Liz Fielding, much-loved author of this parish, reminded me that one of Mills & Boon’s pamphlets on writing romance warned authors that starting with the weather was an absolute no-no. Snoopy clearly hadn’t read that one, had he?

Abbey in Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich

Abbey in Oakwood by Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10)

But starting with the weather can work, though perhaps more in Gothic fiction than in sweet romances.

We could be out on the moors, on “a dark and stormy night” (thanks, Snoopy), where the heroine, alone and drenched to the skin, can find no shelter. Then, in the distance, she sees a single flicker of light. A flash of lightning reveals a dark and lonely inn with a dilapidated sign that creaks in the wind. She believes she has found shelter but we, wiser in the ways of scary stories, know better. She is following a dangerous path.

For who lives at that seemingly deserted place?lonely house in ghostly light

I did break the Mills & Boon rule myself once, by starting with a snowstorm. (“It was cold. So very cold.“) And they published it, too!

But when I revised and republished it last year, I put a non-weather prologue on the front so, strictly speaking, The Mystery Mistletoe Bride no longer starts with the weather. It wasn’t intended as a cop-out, honest, even if it looks that way.

Weather as metaphor

The weather can be a metaphor for what’s going on in the story.

cartoon vampirelightning in stormy weatherSo perhaps the lightning breaks overhead just as the vampire bares his fangs and advances on the helpless virgin?
And then the thunder rolls ominously when he reaches down to take her in his arms…
(I’m sure you can fill in the rest.)

Or perhaps the hot and breathless summer heatwave reflects the anxiety and apprehension of the character, desperately waiting for a resolution that she can’t control? Will she find an answer when the weather breaks? I will confess to having used that metaphor in a short story, a long time ago, where my heroine spent a long hot summer fearing that she was pregnant.

exhausted dog in heatwave

But the heat does take it out of us. I’m sure lots of us have been feeling as exhausted as that poor dog looks. Wet rag, anyone?

Is the weather always sunny in your stories?

book sunglasses on sunny beachIt’s easy, when writing, to forget about the weather completely.

Not necessarily a good idea, especially for stories set in the UK where it tends to rain… 😉 …quite a lot. Maybe our sunny romantic summers are too much of a good thing? I’m remembering how Lizzie Bennet walked to Netherfield to see Jane and arrived with her petticoat six inches deep in mud. And on the romantic front, it did her no harm at all, did it? Mr Darcy didn’t care two hoots about the dirt, no matter what Miss Bingley said.

I made the mistake, once, of setting a Regency romance in 1816 and making nothing of the weather. In my 1816, it was a “normal” sunny summer.

In reality? 1816 was the “year without a summer” as a result of an enormous volcanic explosion in what is now Indonesia.

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 is the largest in recorded history and led to widespread crop failures and deaths across the northern hemisphere in the following years. To my shame, I’d heard of Krakatoa in 1883, and Vesuvius destroying Pompeii in AD79, but not Tambora in 1815, even though Tambora’s explosion was many times bigger. And we know the devastation that Vesuvius caused. The panorama below gives us an impression of the enormous Tambora caldera. It’s 6 kilometres across. Just think what kind of explosion produced that!

Tambora caldera panorama

By Tisquesusa – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69724625

Tambora was a classic case of the unknown unknown, for me at least. Sometimes, we writers don’t realise the things we need to research.

Lesson? The English may regard the weather as a subject for small talk, but for writers it can be much more important than that.

And finally Snoopy continues…

Thank you, Snoopy, and Charles M Schulz, for so much truth about the writer’s life.

Joanna, the Snoopy-fan

Sarah Mallory on creating your fictional new world

A Whole New World?

Creating a whole new world is one of the things I love about starting a new book.

the mappa mundi, a whole new world

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral

I love that moment when a story is forming in my head. The whole world is my oyster.

And yes, I admit food and wine are often involved in the initial creation process….

The past few weeks while I have been working on my new book have been particularly fascinating. It always involves lots of daydreaming as I think of plots and characters, but one of the most enjoyable parts of starting a new story is the setting.

When and where will my characters live in this new world?

Continue reading

Buckingham Palace Garden : trees, family, courage

Buckingham Palace, garden front

Garden front, photograph by Elizabeth Hawksley

This week I had a great treat. I visited Buckingham Palace Gardens. For the first time they are open for members of the  public to explore on a so-called “self-guided tour”.

The idea has been so successful that demand for tickets outstripped supply. So there are now additional ticket for dates throughout July to September.

Indeed, it looks as if even the newly released  tickets have already sold out. But they urge you to check back for possible cancellations. Given the uncertainty of British Weather – that great Cleopatra, as Charles Lamb called it – I should think there may be plenty

Two go to Buckingham Palace

Continue reading

Is your book dated? A writer’s cautionary tale

In the beginning…

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Many years ago, around about my fourth book, I created a town called Maybridge. It was an amalgam of the town I grew up in and a much larger town a few miles away.

Since then, it has provided the background for many stories. It may be no more than a brief visit by the hero or heroine. A shopping trip, a visit to the bank manager, a visit to A&E.

In a couple of books the heroine lives there, and we see her set off on an adventure that will change her life.

Image by Trang Dang from Pixabay

Sometimes I set a story in the town and, over the years, I have created a world with a river (the River May), a thriving foodie area with independent shops, a huge old coaching inn that has become a great craft centre (owned by one of my heroes, naturally), parks, major companies and history.

World Building

Continue reading

Cutting while keeping your voice? Tips and trials

long line of duplicated bollards; need cutting?I’m currently finishing a first draft. And it’s too long. Much too long. It needs lots of cutting.

And therein lies a dilemma.

My first draft is definitely my voice, with all its good and bad points. One of my bad points is repetition. Duplication. Saying the same thing over and over again, but in different words.

ball and chain labelled sin; the sin needs cuttingDid you notice what I did there?
Yes, bad point number one to the fore.
Also in the first para of this post (sigh).

Problem is that, if ⁄ when I start cutting out the sin of duplication, I also risk changing the authorial voice so that it isn’t mine any more.

Oh dear.

Cutting habit words?

I can, of course, make cuts by removing my habit words and phrases.
Of which of course is one. I blogged about that a while ago. old habits to newBut, to be honest, removing habit words doesn’t reduce the overall word count by much. And I need to cut thousands of the blighters. So something more drastic is required. Continue reading

Punctuation and a New Challenge

owls, Little owlThe week before last I spent a blissful holiday in Dorset as a birdwatcher’s companion. We went on long walks in sea air and generally marvelled at the countryside. It was in full fig and glorious.

The Birdwatcher saw a couple of birds he didn’t expect, as well as one genuine rarity. And I spent a couple of hours communing with a Little Owl. It sat so still I worried that it was a stuffed toy. The Amiable Birdwatcher agreed that it might be a decoy to attract owls to that quarry as a des res, so took us back to check. And then, Sleepy Sam came out of his stupor to pursue a fly up one level on the rock face. So  after that, I stayed and watched him doze.

Punctuation – the Reckless Volunteer

writing energy magic, book, bluebell woodThe peace and quiet was very necessary. This last week I have been wrestling with new and exciting challenges. For I am to deliver an online course on punctuation next month and I have never done such a thing before. The online course, I mean.

Punctuation I had covered – or thought I did, anyway. Continue reading

Book descriptors : but what do they actually mean?

TBR pile of booksThis week, in connection with something unrelated to this blog, I came across a lot of book descriptors. By that, I mean the kind of words that are supposed to identify types and genres of fiction. Now I think I know what’s meant by romance or historical or saga. But some of the others? Um. Not so much.

So this blog is about a failing in my education. I need to get my head around these new and unfamiliar words to describe fiction. Who knows, I may even be writing some of them?
But if I don’t understand the book descriptors, how will I ever know?

Uplit, or Up-Lit, or Up Lit (Take your pick on spelling)

One of the first book descriptors I fell over was Uplit. I tried the dictionary. Nope. (It asked me if I’d meant to type uplift. Sigh.) Continue reading

Blinking into the Sunlight

Janus gateways to 2016I’ve been wondering all week who it was who first “emerged blinking into the sunlight.” It’s a lovely phrase but these days it’s turned into a cliché. Google it, and you find rather a lot of very dull examples but no source.

That is especially true now that Covid 19 restrictions may be coming to an end at last. For the time being. Perhaps.

So where did this lovely phrase originate? Shakespeare? The Bible? Milton? Doesn’t look like it.

Or could it be Mole, abandoning his whitewashing for the sheer delights of the spring, the river and friends?

London skyline with St Paul's dome and skyscrapers in fogOr poor devastated Orpheus, evicted from the Underworld, alone.

Maybe, though, it is more mundane. Maybe even collective. Prisoners, say. Or people who have gathered underground as a refuge. Maybe even an audience at some all-night movie show, leaving the cinema as day breaks.

A Mole Moment

So this morning, I woke up just after dawn. I’m a lark, not an owl, and this is normal for me. But it had rained like Niagara nearly all of yesterday and the light this morning was extraordinary. Piercing is the only word. It was my Mole moment. I wanted to be out there adventuring.

And pretty soon I was.

With a herd of elephants on the move.

I should explain that last night friends came to dinner. The first friends round my table for eighteen months! (I was like a labrador whose master has just come home from a year in Space.) And on the way to my house they had photographed this herd.

I  needed to see them. So out I went into the diamond-bright morning to look. And there they were, heading in determined convoy across a playing field. That’s the playing field outside the Saatchi Gallery at the Duke of York’s Headquarters on the King’s Road. Continue reading

Series Covers : but what says Series Covers to readers?

  1. Cover Design and the Self-published Author
  2. An International Cover Story
  3. Designer Brief from Self-Publisher
  4. The mental image of a character : the influence of covers
  5. Female images : the message on romance covers?
  6. Designer Stubble: the Bane of Regency Book Covers
  7. Making Covers Work for You, the Author
  8. Covers: should images be historically accurate?
  9. A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)
  10. Series Covers : but what says Series Covers to readers?

Earlier this week, our own Liz Fielding published a blog about her series covers over 30 years of her writing career. It was fascinating. And it made me think about brands and series.

What makes Series Covers?

A Poor Relation by Joanna Maitland coverCover of A Baby Of Her Own by Kate HardyHarlequin Mills & Boon have been producing different series for decades. Readers may be fans of one or more of these series. Perhaps they love Medicals (left), or Historicals (right).

Readers expect to be able to identify their particular series covers the moment they look at the shelves in the bookshop. It used to be easy because of the colour coding: for example, Medicals were the jade green shown above; Historicals were Dairy Milk Purple. Modern and Romance (of which more below) also had the swoosh against blue (for Modern) and orange (for Romance).

And within their favourite series, readers want to be able to pick out the authors whose books they love. Preferably without having to peer at tiny or barely legible print. The two cover images above don’t get very high marks on that front. It would have been easy to remedy, though.

To give the paying customers what they want.
Simples, no? Isn’t that what branding is about? Well… Continue reading

Cosy Crime Novel, the Continuum

Lockdown seems to bring out the frustrated book clubber in loads of people. Over the last few weeks people keep asking me if I’ve read this cosy crime novel which is:

  • a murder mystery
  • a phenomenal success
  • in spite of being “only a cosy”.

Well, of course, say to a romantic novelist that a book is “only” anything and we’re onto our skate board and off to the nearest bookshop, out of sheer fellow feeling.

So, yes, I’ve read it. Now.

Of which more later*.

Cozy as a Term of Art

woman walking away, rose, cosy crimeBut that made me realise that I’ve always wondered about “Cozy Crime”. [US spelling because, at least in origin, it seems to be a US term.] I mean, what’s cosy [British spelling because this is me talking now] about crime?

By definition, crime is antisocial, the antithesis of cosy. Crime hurts people, sometimes terminally. It deprives them of something or someone they value and may well make them reassess their whole lives.

What’s more, crime can throw whole groups of family, friends and neighbours into turmoil. 

Maybe that’s why “crime” is often modified to  “mystery” when used in this sort of  label. Continue reading