We all know Elmore Leonard’s first rule of writing is to never begin with the weather.
Sometimes, though, weather is an important aspect of a story. It can be as prominent as the leading characters. It can even be a character.
In my all-time favorite-to-reread book, “Rafe,” by Weldon Hill, a storm causes a major flood which becomes the catalyst for growth and redemption of the main character, not surprisingly named Rafe.
Theodore Taylor, in “The Cay,” presents a hurricane that washes over the entire island on which Phillip Enright is stranded during World War II. He survives, tied to a tree at the highest point on the tiny island.
In one of my novels, the already financially strapped Jesse finds his basement apartment inundated with flood water. To make matters worse, a body is floating in the exterior stairwell.
When creating disasters, weather or otherwise, for our writing, we tend to be careful to make them believable. We don’t want readers to close a book in disgust and say, “It couldn’t possibly have happened like that.”
But reality is not limited to the probable or even the believable, like our fiction usually has to be.
I grew up on New York’s Long Island, a place where hurricanes regularly cause huge problems. I can remember as a child seeing the remains of good-sized summer “cottages” standing in sea water after a hurricane had changed the shoreline. The high sand bluffs at a summer camp I attended have long since collapsed into the Long Island Sound.
I also remember talk of a South Cape May in New Jersey, which has been under water for decades now.
We are seeing devastating storms increasing in number and intensity, we should remember that this is not a recent phenomenon.
In 1900, the Texas island of Galveston was hit with a hurricane which washed completely over the island, destroying a booming population center that has never entirely recovered. All structures on the island were either destroyed or damaged. The death toll was estimated at around 8000.
The devastating hurricane of 1938 known as the Long Island Express reshaped the eastern “tail” of Long Island and swept hundreds of summer cottages in Rhode Island out to sea. Long Beach Island in New Jersey was completely flooded, with ocean water meeting back bay water over the island. Approximately 700 people died in that storm.
A few years later, the Great Atlantic Hurricane killed between 300 and 400 people.
In 1972, Hurricane Agnes stalled for several days over Pennsylvania, leaving 220,000 residents homeless and 50 dead in that state alone.
More recently, we have seen Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005. If we were under any illusions that we had learned to cope reasonably with storms of that type, Katrina was a reminder that we remain at the mercy of the weather. An estimated 1800 perished.
Hurricane Sandy blew through in 2012. Dramatic photographs, including one of a New Jersey seaside amusement park roller coaster now rising from the water, gave examples of the destruction. Some of my in-laws lost a house in the Breezy Point fire in New York City that had been in the family for over 120 years.
Record keeping of the weather and geography in this country is only a few hundred years old, so we don’t really know how the area has developed over the centuries. Perhaps it should be obvious that storms will continue to batter our relatively frail constructions, and that it is the very nature of barrier islands to shift and change over the years. Yet we seem to be blind to that. We keep rebuilding in vulnerable areas. Several of my siblings have purchased houses on barrier islands in recent years, even as they are increasingly threatened by unpredictable weather.
In “Condominium,” John D. MacDonald effectively addresses a hurricane disaster of immense proportions, so it can be done. But most of us keep our descriptions within the realm of believable, not necessarily realistic.
Can you think of other examples of weather as major components in stories?
Sources: Worst hurricanes in US history (nypost.com), Wikipedia; National Weather Service; PBS Great flood pbs.org