Whether you write literary fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, or any other genre, you must carefully construct the environment your novel is set in. The weather is a constant in our lives and affects how we dress, how we travel, and what we eat. Therefore, it is a central component of world building. How does the weather come into play in your novel?
If your novel’s setting is a low-tech society, the weather will have more of an effect on your characters than one set in a modern society. However, in any era, the weather will affect the speed with which your characters can travel great distances, and it will affect how they dress. Bad weather always has a detrimental effect on transportation, a serious point to consider.
The weather can be shown in small, subtle ways. We use the weather to show the world in such a way that it doesn’t become the star of the story. What follows are excerpts from three of my works in progress, using weather to show the world in three different genres.
Weather is an integral part of world building in contemporary literary fiction:
The path was slippery and required scaling the cliff in some places. By the time they arrived at the clifftop, the weather had begun to clear, and the low fog was dissipating. Patches of blue peeked from behind the gray clouds, and the wind had picked up.
Parker absorbed the solitude, enjoying the way he could see the entirety of Baron’s Hollow, from one end of the cove to the other. He turned to Dominic. “You were right. This is perfect.” Gazing down on the world, he saw Izzy running with the dogs at the south end, heading toward the lighthouse as if she were trying to outrun her anger, the wind tearing her blonde hair from its braid. At the house, John stood on the deck, absorbed in whatever it was he was painting, oblivious to the drama.
Far down at the north end of the cove, Leo and Claire walked beside the surf, with Leo’s gestures emphasizing his words. Claire was alternately agitated and hunched against the sharp breeze in her hooded sweatshirt. It was clear her agent had told her something she didn’t want to hear. Parker chuckled; she looked like a little girl being chastised by her father.
How does the weather look, feel, smell? What does it sound like? I use it to show the world in my medieval fantasy:
In the absence of battle noises, the hissing of the rain on the foliage was loud in Julian’s ears. The odors of wet horses mingled with the scents of blood and damp, musty undergrowth.
Our characters are not always traveling or fighting in the rain. Use the weather:
Dust hung in the air, burning his eyes, a thick pall that concealed him but also hid his quarry.
Even in an epic fantasy, at times our characters are moved by the beauty of the world around them.
Alf’s gaze was caught by a giant maple, far across the valley. The setting sun lit the halo of spring’s new leaves, and the maple’s glowing crown of iridescent green became a beacon, shining in the forest of dark evergreens. The thought crossed his mind that the tree was like hope. It shone against the darkness of the trees around it, a guiding light for the weary to cling to. Maybe his son would live. Maybe the new treatments would work.
We are able to find out how various modern societies deal with severe weather, simply by looking on the internet. Hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires–how local communities prepare for and deal with these events is newsworthy. But historical societies also had ways of dealing with the weather when they had to be out in it, and the internet is also your friend when you are researching this.
In early medieval times, people of England, Wales, and Ireland didn’t have to deal with the extreme temperatures they experienced in the 17th and 18th centuries, as it was a warmer time. However, they did get some occasional snow and cold in the winter, and at times they suffered heat waves during the summer.
In a cold, wet winter, a simple shawl won’t cut it. Layers are critical, and the materials they would use are simple and readily available—linen and wool.
I hate it when I come across an improbability in an otherwise good narrative. If you write fantasy or romance, you must remember that while fur-trapping is a common way of earning money in a lower-tech society, only the wealthier classes, the merchants, and nobility, will be able to buy those furs. The trapper and his/her family will have fur lining and fur trim on some of their cold-weather garments, but they won’t be ostentatious or stylish. Their clothes will be strictly utilitarian, designed for warmth, as everything they trap will be sold. Certainly, the best furs will be sold, so what they wear will not be the rarest. After all, the trapper is working to earn money for their family.
In tropical climates, people wear fewer clothes, and those they do wear are much lighter in weight. They protect the wearer from the sun, but breathe, allowing for comfort in times of high heat and humidity.
The average medieval agrarian society will have access to fleeces, though spun wool is more common. Also, in the more urban centers of a low-tech society, the average person’s winter garments, hooded cloaks, gloves, and even bedding would be made of thick wool, layered and felted.
Wool has been a winter mainstay since humans first began making cloth. Some garments will be made of heavy canvas or oil-cloth. Oilcloth, close-woven cotton canvas or linen cloth with a coating of boiled linseed oil, was a product available from the late middle ages on.
Clothing and cold weather gear will make their appearance in relatively few sentences in your novel. Most likely it will only be mentioned in passing, but it is important as part of what builds the world you are creating. A little research on your part regarding what technology might be plausible in your society will lend a sense of realism to your work.
The world we set our character in is far more than whether they travel on horseback or in a Maserati, more than clothes and fashion, more than décor and food. The world has weather, which affects everything and makes the décor and the Maserati real. When you include the sounds and sensations of the weather, it lends a sense of solid reality to the words you write on paper.
These words we write are, after all, only a dream with a beginning, middle, and end, a vision we want to make believable through solid world building.
If you need to know how people protected themselves against the weather in the middle ages, here are several good websites for research:
Sarah Woodbury, Romance and Fantasy in the Middle Ages
Medieval Gloves, etc.
Castles and Manor Houses
Connie J. Jasperson is the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
This article was first published on August 27, 2018 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as “Weather, a Central Component of World Building,” © 2018 Connie J. Jasperson and has been reprinted by permission.