Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

No Ordinary Days

By Lazette Gifford

2001, By Lazette Gifford

(Click on pictures to see larger versions)

Weather 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. 

Part 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. 

We 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 inclement weather.   

My 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. 

summercloud.jpg (82781 bytes)Do 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 system. 

The 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. 

But 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. 

Spring 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. 

Winter 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.  

However, 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. 

And 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. 

ice.jpg (149136 bytes)The 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. 

You 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. 

An 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. 

How 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. 

snowfall2.jpg (67648 bytes)When 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. 

Roads, 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 ice pack. 

snowshot.jpg (85456 bytes)This 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. 

I 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. 

Most 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. 

snowfall1.jpg (118764 bytes)However, 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. 

Then 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 fall. 

The 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 of exposure. 

Winter 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. 

summercloud2.jpg (66130 bytes)Severe 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. 

Here 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. 

Summer 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.   

treeup.jpg (134057 bytes)Thunderstorms 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 hail.jpg (137835 bytes) 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. 

But 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. 

Just 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. 

funnel.jpg (83024 bytes)While 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

Two 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. 

The 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. 

It's 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. 

So, 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 the house. 

rainbow.jpg (174147 bytes)And 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.

Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather  David M Ludlum
 ISBN: 0-679-40851-7

Meteorology: Weather and Climate, Frank S. Sechrist and Edward Hopkins (This edition is 1976 -- there is no ISBN)