The Importance of Setting: Let’s Talk About the Weather

Posted by on Sep 4, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror, Genre Matters, Writing Advice | 0 comments

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Everyone knows that settings are an important part of fiction. Perhaps especially in speculative fiction, much attention is given to world building and how well it is or is not done. There are even apps and websites dedicated to helping writers build realistic, consistent worlds for their characters to live in. But if there’s one thing I’ve noticed, it’s that even the best-written worlds often lack the effects of weather on characters.

No one lives in a vacuum. We move through our days, and we talk about the weather often, especially if it’s particularly pleasant or unpleasant. We are humans, and it is human nature to discuss those things that bring us comfort and misery. Yet as I commented on Minnesota’s heat wave on my social networks recently, someone commented that I painted a particularly vivid picture, and it occurred to me that descriptors such as those I’d used are often left out of fiction. If we, as humans, are so concerned with how our surroundings make us feel, why is it that our characters move through their worlds affected by the people and things in their respective environments, but rarely affected by the environments themselves?

sunAs I sat out on my front step in 109 degree weather with the wind blowing fiercely, I wasn’t being affected by the car parked in front of me in the driveway, or the trash and recycling bins lined in a neat row on the other side of it. I wasn’t affected by the wrought iron railings on either side of the steps I sat on, or the vinyl-sided house those steps led to, but those are the elements used to describe most character environments. An author might mention the sun beating down, or the fact that it was windy, but to what extent? What does it mean to the character that it’s “hot” or that “the wind was blowing fiercely” as they sat there?

I have at times read about a character’s ‘sweat-slicked brow’ or similar, but these things are so overused and bland as to be read over without adding much to the feelings of the character. As I sat baking on my steps, I didn’t feel ‘sweat-slicked.’ I felt as if I were melting, my insides slowly seeping through my skin in rivulets of clear fluid that collected and dripped down my arms, down my chest, around the creases where my arms and legs were bent as I sat slouched on the steps, smoking. Sweat pooled where my elbows rested on my bare thighs. The normally dry, hot flavor of the tobacco was muted by the humidity, making it feel as if I were trying to pull smoke through a wet towel over my face. The wind was constant and strong, pulling pollen into the air and making it cling to  -my sweat slicked skin- every inch of exposed flesh. I wanted to peel my skin off like the fuzzy yellow pollen-suit it felt like.

blizzardWinters in Minnesota are as harsh as this heat wave has been. You can say it’s cold, but cold is as relative as hot. Cold to a Californian is anything under 70 degrees. Cold to a Minnesotan is 40 degrees below zero with 30 mile an hour winds making it feel even colder. Did you know that at 40 degrees below zero, if you throw a cup of hot coffee in the air, it will never hit the ground? Evaporation, friends. Think about what that type of cold feels like when you pull a lungful of it into your body. Don’t tell me your character leaves the house and steps into a ‘biting wind’ … Tell me how they step into a cold that takes their first breath away, and how every subsequent breath lets them feel ice crystals forming and thawing in their lungs, how their eyes water to protect the delicate cornea and sclera from freezing, how the excess tears freeze to their eyelashes and make their nose run.

I understand not wanting to overload readers with minutiae. No one wants to mire down a perfectly good story with too much detail. But neither should we gloss over what can be the some of the most effective elements of your hard-built world. It is up to you to find the perfect balance called for in your individual story. Ditch your sweat-slicked brows and biting winds, and tell me how your character is influenced by the world you’ve put them in.

Being human is a sensory experience often resulting in bodily discomfort. It’s not ‘hot’ here in Minnesota today. Today, Minnesotans live in a blast furnace and wish we could grow gills on the spot so we could breathe in some oxygen with our humidity. How’s the weather in your world?

Jessica NelsonJessica Nelson has been writing since girlhood. She started out writing short stories for herself, usually centering around something like a unicorn and Pegasus prancing along the top of a rainbow, causing glitter to fall from the sky. As she grew, so did her love of words. She filled blank volumes faster than she could get her hands on them, teaching her the true value of napkins, menus, skin, and even her blue jeans.


Jessica has since found her niche in the world of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She keeps a blog of bookish things and miscellaneous bric-a-brac she thinks readers might find interesting at and writes book reviews for The Future Fire. She lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband, two daughters, and a slew of critters, spending her days reading, crafting, tapping at the keyboard, and picking up fur balls. Follow her on Twitter @AllwaysUnmended.
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