Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
No Ordinary Days
By Lazette Gifford
2001, By Lazette Gifford
(Click on pictures to see larger versions)
often plays an important part in my stories, from a drought on an already
desolate world (leading to battle over the remaining water supply), to a
blizzard that masks a magical attack in a fantasy novel.
My stories are peppered with rainstorms, winds, lightning, snow and
drought. I love working with weather-related events.
of this is because I live in a place where the whims of nature can affect even
the economy of the area. A bad
summer might foretell the ruin of many farming families, either through
excessive heat and drought, or through hail and flooding.
That means less sales in town, and might force layoffs as businesses have
less income. In the smaller towns
it can mean the demise of entire stores. It
isn't just a sudden devastating storm that can destroy areas.
There are longer and more insidious attacks against civilization.
experience all four true seasons here, which include the wonderful colors of
both spring and autumn, as well as the severity of dangerous summer storms and
frigid winter blizzards. Weather is not just the changing of seasons or the
passing of storms. People are
affected by what happens in ways that go far beyond the immediate discomfort of
love of storms is reflected not just in my writing. As soon as the sky clouds over or the first flakes begin to
fall, I usually grab my camera and head out. I want to understand what I see,
and often I write about it later in stories.
This has led to an amateur study of meteorology, with the usual stack of
books on the subject piled up on shelves. However,
there are two that I always keep close to my writing desk. The first is Audubon
Society Field Guide to North American Weather.
(I also have Audubon Field Guides to several other things, including
Birds, Insects, Trees, Flowers and Sea Shells.
No, there aren't any seas in Nebraska...) The first 176 pages of the
guide book are filled with fascinating information on everything from how clouds
are created by convection (sun) or orographic (mountain) lifting, to the
formation of dust devils. This information is followed by page after page of wonderful
pictures covering nearly every aspect of weather.
your characters look up and worry because the sky is growing cloudy?
What sort of clouds would they be looking at, and what type of weather
would that portend? You can add a new level of detail to your stories by picking
up this one book and making a study of it.
And don't overlook this idea just because you are writing about other
worlds. Even if your imagined
planet is completely different from Mother Earth, you will still have some sort
of weather there. Check this book
out to see if anything sparks an idea of how climate would be handled in your
second book I keep around is probably terribly outdated -- the copyright is
1974. The title is Meteorology:
Weather and Climate and it's actually a textbook. If you want to learn why the winds move the way they
do, or what is likely to happen if your mage suddenly introduced a rain storm in
a drought, you might want to find a book like this one and take some time to
study it. You'll gain a greater
understanding of what types of conditions you need to create a weather-related
incident for your story. Battling
against the apparent whims of nature only work if the author understands that
there are factors that must be present to create a massive snowstorm, a
hurricane, or a tornado.
what is it like to actually be in one of these storms?
How does the weather feel when you're standing out in it, and what can
you expect to happen? Here are few
notes on what I've experienced, as well as things I've learned from others.
and autumn are fairly calm seasons, though you can get surprise weather in
either one. I am going to
concentrate on the more severe seasons, however.
is fascinating for me. I always
look forward to the first snowstorms. There
is nothing quite like standing outside in the dark of night, watching the snow
fall down around you, with the soft brush of icy flakes against your warm skin.
The world is quieter, and the night brighter, as the white snow picks up any bit
of ambient light and reflects it.
just because this is the Midwest, we are not always guaranteed snow.
There have been several years when we've only gotten a light coating of
snow at best, and suffered through three or more months of cold, dead, brown
ground instead of the pretty covering of white.
Winter does not even guarantee cold -- but if you are writing about a
farming area like that in the middle of America, consider that the lack of a
cold season can have a detrimental effect on some crops.
Many of them must have a cold season as part of their growing cycle.
here's a little bit of information some people don't usually realize -- it often
has to warm up a bit to snow. If
the weather is too cold, there won't be any moisture in the air, so no
condensation and no snow. This is
not always the case, but in this area we usually worry more when the
temperatures pick up a bit after a long cold stretch.
Continuous days in the sub-zero range may have a lot of blowing snow, but
will rarely have new accumulations.
early and late storms of winter can be the most dangerous for several reasons.
When the weather is just starting to turn toward snow, the first storm of
the season might actually be in the form of an ice storm.
These can be very destructive. Ice
can build up on power lines and pulls them down, it can cover trees and break
off branches, and it can coat streets and sidewalks in a glass-like glaze.
In spring, this -- or a late snowstorm -- can mean the death of newly
emerging plants. Ice storms are
often the worst weather to be out in. Neither
driving nor walking is safe, and if there is any sort of wind it causes even
more destruction as ice-weighed limbs break, taking down anything in their path.
Imagine trying to walk on such a covering with the wind blowing! However,
such weather is gorgeous as well. Everything
glitters, even at night. Jewels
hang from every tree, and if the sun comes out after such a storm, the world is
filled with tiny rainbows.
might also get this effect after overnight condensation, followed by pre-dawn
sub-freezing temperatures. It's likely to melt off early in the day in those
cases. Another form is rime frost,
a thin white covering over everything. The
trees look as though they've been dipped in powdered sugar.
ice storm followed by a snow adds a new level of danger.
People who did not witness the first part of the storm may not be aware
that there is ice under the snow. This
is especially perilous if they are driving in from another area that did not
experience ice first. Quite often
the major highways will be closed down in weather of this type.
Even an experienced driver can lose control on a patch of ice and find
himself off the road. There are
more accidents in this area in an ice/snow storm than at any other time.
fast does the weather change? Usually
there is a slow cooling from day to day, but that's not always the case.
I remember one autumn day in particular: We had temperatures in the 80's
(F) during the afternoon, but a cold front came through and the temperature
dropped 40 degrees in one hour. That was very dangerous, and there were
thunderstorms and tornadoes everywhere in the area.
The temperature continued to drop, and by midnight that night we had
three inches of snow.
you look at a picture of a snow-covered scene, you might think the snow has
fallen in a flat, even layer. This
never quite the case: If the snow
has covered a field, there will always be indentations in the ground beneath it
-- little bumps and ridges, dips and holes -- that can trip the unwary traveler.
Also, snow rarely just falls straight down. There is almost always wind
associated with the storms, and that means drifts. Snow will blow around any obstacle, from a tree to a house to
a hill, and pile up higher along the edges. A snowstorm of five inches with a
good wind can produce waist-high drifts without much trouble.
which by their nature are pretty much flat and open, are especially prone to
drifting snow. In this area the
major highways will usually be closed during any serious storm, stranding
travelers wherever they can find shelter. Even
a storm with only a couple inches can be treacherous. Winds blowing can cause whiteout conditions, often making it
impossible to see the edges of the road. Sometimes
motorists caught in this weather will drive with their door open, doing their
best to keep an eye on the road and not find themselves driving off it at a
curve. Most cars will also
'buck' as they hit even small drifts, making a very bumpy and unpleasant ride,
especially if the wind is also blowing against the vehicle, causing it to slip
on any patch of ice. During the
winter, road condition reports in this area include the percentage of snow and
area has been settled since long before motorized vehicles and Interstate
Highways, of course. I have often
tried to imagine what life would be like if I was dealing with such storms with
only horses and perhaps wagons. Pulling a wagon over a dirt track filled with
snow drifts must have been a terrible experience.
Of course the people did prepare better for the hard winters than we
generally do. They knew they were
not 'running to the store' as soon as the weather cleared up a bit.
recently heard a bit of lore that may not be true, but makes a nice story idea.
When ranchers began fencing in their areas, they often covered the tops
of fence posts with old boots. This protected the wood from the weather, but it
had an added function: the boot heels were always pointed back toward the ranch
house where people could find sanctuary during winter storms.
snowfalls in my area are a couple inches at a time; just enough to cover the
ground, and make certain that sidewalks, driveways, and streets need to be
scooped. However, we have had our
share of heavy snows as well. One
such storm hit us several years ago, when my husband and I lived about twenty
miles away in a small town, and drove to and from work in the city.
The storm hit in the early afternoon, and by the time we were ready to
head for home, there were already several inches on the ground.
We considered staying in town, but both of us wanted to get home.
We drove out to the highway just to see how it looked. It really wasn't too bad.
We could see clearly for a mile or more, and the road wasn't badly
covered. Besides, we happened to
spot a snowplow just heading down the road, so we fell in behind him.
snow can run in heavy bands, and just a couple miles from town we hit some very
bad weather. By then, the road
behind us was already drifting over just moments after we had passed, and the
opposite side of the road was not cleared at all. We could not turn around.
We stuck close to the plow, our only hope of getting through.
We weren't in any real danger, however.
There are farms and towns scattered all along the road and we could have
taken refuge anywhere along there. However,
as long as the plow kept going, we stayed with him.
we hit an unexpected snag in our plans to get home. The plow reached the turn-off that headed the last eight or
so miles to the small town where we lived -- and he started to turn around.
We had only two choices: try to follow him back, or turn north and hope
that the road -- which didn't look as badly covered -- was drivable.
We decided to head north, always keeping in mind how far it was between
the farms in this area, and that we could barely see the road at all in the snow
driver of the plow saw our signal. He
pulled out of his turn and headed up the northern road, going as far as our town
where we turned off, before he turned around and headed back.
We never knew who drove that plow, but he got us home that night. We made
it only half a block into town before we had to abandon the car and walk the
rest of the way -- only a few blocks, mind you. We had over two feet of snow
before morning, and were trapped at home for three days before the town was dug
out and the roads reopened. I would
never consider doing something like that again.
Yes, we could have walked to farmhouses -- if we could have found them.
People often drive off roads in such storms, and because the snow is
falling so heavily, they can't find the road or see homes, and many of them die
changing to spring can also have ice storms like autumn, but more often the
weather-related problem at that time is a combination of rainstorms and snow
melt. If the rains come too early
it aids in melting the snow, but because the ground beneath the snow is still
frozen, there is no chance of absorption. If
there is a lot of snow and/or a lot of rain, this leads to flooding, often along
the rivers and streams that are inundated with more water than they can hold.
A factor that can be added to make flooding even more interesting is the
possibility of ice jams on the rivers. If
it has been cold enough for the top layer of the river to freeze over, these
huge slabs of ice will break apart and float down stream for a ways before
piling up and causing a blockage. There
is also, in a violent flood, a great deal of debris being pulled down into the
streams. Sometimes this will start
getting caught in areas -- under bridges is a likely spot -- and build up till
it causes a block, and waters flood out around it.
As added trouble, the pressure of that water against the blockage will
often destroy the bridge as well.
summer weather takes several different forms.
Locally, we have suffered through several drought years, which are often
made worse by incredible combinations of heat and humidity.
When you see a report that says the heat index was 115, that isn't just a
pretend number. Those combinations of actual heat and humidity are deadly,
and people who don't take them seriously are often in for unpleasant surprises.
And not only people suffer; there have been several occasions over the
last few years where farm animals have died in the thousands because there was
no way to get them relief from this type of weather.
Remember that hen houses and barns are not air-conditioned.
is another bit of weather lore that might come in handy for a story.
I've used it myself. Droughts
often end not just in a rainstorm, but in a massive flood.
in the Midwest usually brings to mind the specter of thunderstorms and
tornadoes, though. The American
Midwest experiences more tornadoes than any other area of the world. That does
not, however, mean that they are a constant threat.
The weather needed to produce such storms includes high humidity,
excessive heat, and a strong cold front -- and even then, it is more likely to
produce a thunderstorm than anything worse.
can be dangerous enough. Straight-line winds (as opposed to the spiral winds of
a tornado) can reach over 100mph in storms, and do extensive damage all their
own. Add in hail, which can come in
sizes from pea to softball, and the amount of destruction to buildings, cars and
crops can be devastating. While
hailstorms are usually brief, there have been cases where enough has fallen to
cover the ground. Hail is
incredibly hard, and comes down with great force.
It can easily dent the top of cars, break out windshields, and destroy
roofs of houses. It can also shred
all the leaves on trees and bushes.
even so, it's nothing to the destruction brought by a tornado.
These are categorized, like hurricanes, by the strength of their winds
from an F0 to an F5. An F0 might do light damage over as far as a
mile. An F5 might destroy everything over several hundred miles.
four days before I sat down to write this article, a tornado tore through the
small town of Jackson, Nebraska, which is only ten miles from where I live.
My husband and I were out at the time the twister struck.
There had been reports of bad weather in the area, but that's not at all
unusual in the summer. We had
headed for the bank and the store, and were caught in a torrential rainfall that
threatened to flood streets. There
was hail as well, though not much. Even
after the rain there was an oppressive, sticky heat in the air, which is never a
good sign. Dark, high-topped clouds
were all around us, but we could also see clear skies in many places.
pulling away from the store, we saw a funnel cloud form overhead, though it did
not touch down. It was about half
an hour later that we learned about Jackson, and spent several frantic hours
trying to find information on friends who lived in the town. The first reports
(audio only, even in this age of instant news) said that there was massive
damage. It was nearly three hours
before we had a video view, and that was with news teams no more than fifteen
miles from the town. There was no
way to get into town because huge trees had been uprooted and covered the road.
tornado had spared our friends, but completely destroyed ten houses, the
telephone exchange, the post office, as well as damaging several others,
including the school that had been built in the 1800's and was probably the
oldest school facility still in use in the state. There were no deaths and only minor injuries, but only
because the storm hit before many people had gotten home from work.
tornado was later confirmed as an F2. This was by far not the strongest type of
tornado, but it completely destroyed entire houses. It had taken less than two minutes to pass through this town.
If, as a writer, you are looking for a way to unsettle your characters, this is
one of the most dramatic. However, you cannot just throw a tornado in without
the proper conditions, which include excessive heat and humidity colliding with
an incoming cold front.
statements have stayed with me from the storm that struck Jackson.
The first was from a woman who told how she had to hold on to the arms of
two of her children who were lifted off the ground and were being pulled away
while their house was destroyed around them.
Imagine being that woman or those children!
It wasn't until after the storm had passed, and she knew that they were
safe, that she realized a board was imbedded in her ankle.
Hers was the worst injury in town. Her
husband had been driving home and saw the tornado go through town, and arrived
to find his home gone. He thought
he had also lost his wife and five children.
town's priest made the second statement. Several
people saw the tornado heading straight for the Catholic Church, but it veered
at the last moment, broke only one window, and leapt across the road where it
damaged the school instead. When asked if he thought God had directed the storm,
the priest said that if it had been God's work He would have destroyed the
church and saved the homes.
important to consider reactions like this when you write about destruction of
any sort. How do the people feel
afterwards? What did those people
lose in those ten homes? The
stories for the last few days have been about the clean-up and the rare pieces
of their lives that somehow survived: a
gilded baby shoe, a grandchild's picture, clothing strewn up in the trees.
after all these horror stories, I can just see some of you shaking your heads
and wondering why anyone would live in this area. I know why I would find it very difficult to move anywhere
else: I love the weather
here. Not the destruction it
sometimes causes, of course -- but the sheer grandeur of some storms is
exhilarating. I have stood outside
on cold snowy nights and felt the ice hitting my face as the world turns white
around me. I've sat by the porch
window and watched lightning stretch across the sky, and felt the wind rattle
then there is the joy of seeing the world awaken and turn green each spring, and
later in the year the beauty of watching the rich autumn colors spread as the
world drifts toward the cold sleep of winter once more.
I know that other areas have their own beauty.
I've lived in such places; but for me, the pageantry of these seasons and
their special storms will never grow dull.
Society Field Guide to North American Weather David M Ludlum
Meteorology: Weather and Climate, Frank S. Sechrist and Edward Hopkins (This edition is 1976 -- there is no ISBN)