Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Serendipity and Destruction

Cricket McRae

Never start a book with the weather, Elmore Leonard tells us, and it's a dictum I adhere to religiously. I do, however, have two notebooks full of observations about nature that I mine in order to lend credence to the atmosphere of my novels. Things like what the air smells like at night in the middle of October, or after the first rain in August or all the damn time in January. How snow behaves, what's blooming when, how the air feels against your skin, how the birds sound at four a.m. in the spring versus the fall. Mostly tiny things, mere seasoning for the primary flavors of plot and character.

But my nature journals are all from the Pacific Northwest. My current work in progress is set in Colorado, where I live now. In the final climactic scene(s), one of the rocks I'm throwing at my long suffering protagonist is weather. Really bad weather. I've researched the air flow patterns, what happens inside the kinds of clouds common to the area, what circumstances create hail and tornadoes, but I lacked the little, unusual details that make a storm a specific storm.

Sunday morning I'm working in my office. The room darkens. The sky has turned to mercury. Huge, isolated drops of rain splat against the pavement outside. Then the deluge hits, accompanied by an almost conversational rumble of thunder. I abandon my computer, make a cup of tea, and go out to the covered front porch.

The lightening is constant. A yellow streak zigzags overhead, and the thunder roars like a jet engine moving from west to east for a long three seconds. Another flash sounds like a rifle shot, complete with the dopleresque zchwinggggg of an old-timey western. The rain turns to hail.

The ground squirms with quarter-inch ice pellets. I walk out from the overhang to see if they hurt. Not too bad. My neighbor, the mechanic, runs out with an umbrella to cover the rose bush his wife just planted. He sees me and stops. I wave. The hand he lifts in return is tentative. That's okay. They've wondered a little about me ever since I asked him how to cut a brake line without getting caught.

The hail increases to half an inch in diameter. At that size it officially stings like hell. I run inside to grab a notebook. When I return to the front porch a wave of crisp fragrance hits my nose. First I identify mint. The hail has pummeled the patch of spearmint into the ground, muddling it as if for the world's biggest mojito. A wisp of licorice joins in, from the sunset hyssop bushes by the driveway. Then the lavender scent of the smashed bee balm leaves. I run through the house and throw open the door by the garage to look out at the herb garden. Again, the smell of destruction is amazing: oregano, tarragon, sage, rosemary and thyme fill the air.

I inhale deeply until I realize I'm going to hyperventilate if I don't knock it off. It's wonderful. It's terrible. The sound of my pen scribbling is lost in the rattle of the ice pellets that continue to fall.

There will be a lot of work, cleaning up and replanting. The huge pink peonies are lost, their dowdy, blowzy blooms lying like dead fish in the bark mulch. And I won't have to worry about eating salad for a few days; those delicate leaves have been reduced to green mush.

For now. It's early in the season, and I cling to the hope that with a little help, nature will bounce back in her inimitable way. In the meantime, I've got some of those telling details that I wouldn't have otherwise. Will I use all of them? Of course not. It's not a scene about a storm -- it's a scene about someone trying to get away from a crazed murderer.

And when it comes to the tornado? I'll just wing that one, thankyouverymuch.


Keith Raffel said...

Thanks for giving me lots to think about. "Weather 'tis nobler in the mind..."

Alan Orloff said...


Sometimes things must suffer for one to achieve great art. At least you can always replant.

And I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen the words, "dopleresque zchwinggggg" used together. Or separately, for that matter. I like it!

Lisa Bork said...

Great details and what a terrific idea to keep a notebook for future story use. Sorry about your blooms.

G.M. Malliet said...

Loved this post. Beautiful language that I hope makes it into your WIP?

Cricket McRae said...

Funny, Keith, to sling that arrow.

Alan, I'm just glad you didn't read it "Wayne-esque schwing!" I was kinda worried about that...

Lisa, some of my best writing teachers were nature writers who focused on sensory detail -- they gave me the idea for the notebooks. And luckily, many of the plants are already perking up.

Thanks, Gin! A few things made it in to the wip, but I have a tendency to over-purpleize my prose at times. And make up words. So I have to be careful. ; - >

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I love your idea to have notebooks on observations and descriptions. You just never know where they'll come in handy in a WIP.

Great post!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Wonderful post. I've noticed that my books lack a lot of weather color. Guess that's the problem with living in So. Cal. I guess I could write about fire storms and earthquakes.

I love writing when it's raining out. Unfortunately, So. Cal. doesn't get much of that. :(