When I started writing a novel, I began with the impression that I would be writing dialogue, action sequences, and the like. But I didn’t even get through my prologue before I realized my error.
Researching weather events may be important for your story
My novel is set in a specific time and place in the past. If I were going to have my characters traveling 130 miles by horse-drawn wagon in the winter of 1929 in northern Texas, I needed to make sure they could actually make that trip then. I found myself firing up the Google machine and researching weather to see what was happening. And it turns out a hard freeze and historic snowfall blew through Texas on exactly the dates I would have my folks traveling. Which is great! No sense letting your characters have any easy go of things.
Here’s what the National Weather Service tells us about that winter storm:
Snow began falling in western portions of North Texas during the afternoon hours of December 20. Lightning and thunder accompanied the snow throughout the following night. By daybreak on December 21, several inches of snow had fallen across Central Texas from Junction to Lampasas, northeastward to Palestine and Athens. Clifton and Hillsboro had already accumulated 16 inches of snow by daylight that morning. The heavy snow continued through much of the day, before tapering off during the late afternoon and evening hours. By late evening on December 21, the snow was confined to far East Texas.
The storm lasted barely 24 hours, but the storm totals were nothing short of extraordinary. A swath of snowfall in excess of 12 inches was 2 to 3 counties wide. Along the axis of maximum depth, totals exceeded 24 inches, on par with the heaviest snowfalls in Texas history.
Weather events can provide progressive complications
Story Grid tells us to have progressive complications that keep things interesting for the reader. So I’ve decided to punch mine in the face right at the beginning with a death in the family and a major weather event. So I guess we’ll see how they respond. Mike Tyson is quoted as saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
I got punched in the mouth when I started researching weather for the setting in my prologue. I had to adjust my plan for how the novel begins. My characters are getting punched in the mouth, and I don’t know yet what they’re going to do about it.
When I write my non-fiction, I expect to do extensive research. When I set out to write about Alabama’s anti-miscegenation laws and the prosecutions that resulted, I knew what I was in for. When I started writing the novel, I knew there were some things I was going to research, mostly places I haven’t been or what certain things were like during the Great Depression. But I hadn’t anticipated weather being one of my research topics. Maybe I should have. It just didn’t occur to me.
What I learned is that research can provide interesting wrinkles and obstacles for our characters to overcome, that we may not otherwise have thought of or had an opportunity to write about. Lean into the research. Embrace your findings, even if it throws you a hook when you were expecting a jab. Make the necessary adjustments, and keep plugging away at your story.
I took this photograph on a stormy night in Lewisville, Texas in the summer of 2001.