Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Today there will be weather as usual….

Global warming notwithstanding, weather is one of the few factors in our lives that truly has not changed regardless of the historical period in which a novel is set. How temperatures were measured and how people coped with extremes, on the other hand, has changed. Likewise the interaction of weather with technology can be quite period specific. As a consequence, weather can play a significant role in the plot of a historical novel no less than in a contemporary one.

Let me start with an example from An Obsolete Honor that describes the impact of the Russian winter on the German Wehrmacht. The Wehrmacht was initially a heavily motorized army that increasingly turned to horse-power to cope with some of the challenges of transportation in Russia. As this passage reminds the reader, however, not all the problems could be solved by horses. The passage below appears in the novel as a letter from a German officer to his sister. It is based, incidentally, on diaries describing an actual event.

An Obsolete Honor: A Story of the German Resistance to HitlerOver Christmas the weather had been mild and most of us had soaking wet feet when suddenly the temperatures dropped to minus 30 degrees. Our feet froze inside our boots. The gasoline froze in the vehicles, even when the motors were left running. The horses slipped and fell until their knees were torn open, and they didn’t have the strength to get up again. The blizzard was blowing in our faces the whole time, which made it impossible for the artillery to provide effective protection for the withdrawal. The MGs jammed in the cold, but because of the earlier thaw, the apparently frozen swamps that we tried to cross sometimes gave way, swallowing man, horse and wagon….

Aviation was also severely restricted by weather in the Second World War when radar, weather forecasting and air-to-ground communications were poor. This combination often led to difficult situations such as the incident described in the following passage from The Lady in the Spitfire:

The Lady in the Spitfire“How the hell can they get the weather so fucking wrong?!” Tony burst out, giving voice to what they were all feeling. For three days in a row they had been alerted, leaves had been cancelled, aircraft bombed up and crews briefed – then the whole thing had been called off due to ‘weather.’ A murky, wet low-pressure system with fits of rain and squalls of wind had settled over the British Isles, turning the airfields into shallow lakes and the skies into cauldrons of dark, pregnant cloud. Today the mission originally scheduled for 6 am had been postponed twice. Now, at 2:30 in the afternoon, when it was almost too late to reach the target in daylight anyway, they had been ordered to take off yet again. The crews had been transported out to their ships, even though anyone who bothered to stick his head out of his office would have noticed that it was still drizzling from low cloud.

As “Halifax Hooker’s” crew dropped off the back of the truck, rain was running off the wings of the big bomber and splattering onto the concrete hardstand. Inside the aircraft it was damp and gloomy, making Jay shiver despite his flight jacket as he settled into the damp leather seat on the flight deck. Rain rolled down the windshield in rivulets.

Weather’s influence on us not always via technology, it can also be very direct. One simple way the weather affects us the way it influences our mood. In the next example from The Olympic Charioteer the weather affects the character’s mood -- but inversely to the normal impact because he is grieving the loss of his son.

The Olympic CharioteerThe spring that followed was the most painful of his long life…It started when the crocus began to bud around the house. Lysandridas had always rejoiced at the sight of the first crocus. Teleklos found himself remembering how as a little boy of five or six Lysandridas had come running inside one early morning breathless with excitement, “The crocuses, Teleklos! The crocuses have popped up overnight!”

Weather can also be a catalyst. In the following example from An Obsolete Honor, the weather provides the push that helps the two main characters overcome their inhibitions – and so leads to a significant step forward in their relationship.

It was pouring rain when Philip and Alexandra finished dinner and went out into the street. The rain had blown in unexpectedly and put an effective end to their plans for a long walk. Alix sighed in disappointment. It was only 8 pm and she did not want to go home yet. She’d looked forward to the evening with Philip all week, not least because he had suggested the walk rather than a concert or movie. Alexandra much preferred his conversation to anything cultural. Besides, they could not talk uninhibitedly in public places, since there was always the risk of being overheard. The walk had been a means of avoiding unwanted ears.

With Lotte’s advice ringing in her ears and her heart thundering in her breast, Alix collected all her courage and suggested – without directly looking at Philip: “If you won’t get the wrong idea, we could have a glass of wine in my apartment.”

Philip, who had been trying to find the courage to make a similar suggestion, agreed at once.

Finally, here is an example from Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge in which weather has a major, long-term impact, in this case causing a drought that leads to the impoverishment of one of the characters and his near loss of citizenship. Here is the description of how two ten year-old boys face the consequences.

Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge“See you tomorrow then, Alkander,” Leonidas addressed the other boy.

Alkander spun around, and his face was struggling with emotions. “No, you won’t! The harvest was horrible. My mom can’t scrape together the agoge fees any more. I won’t be there tomorrow or ever again.”

“But if you don’t finish the agoge, you’ll never get citizenship!” Leonidas protested.

“Are you stupid or what?! I can’t afford the syssitia fees, either. I’ll never be a citizen. Never! I never fit in anyway, and you won’t care if I’m gone.”

Leonidas was shocked and stunned. He could find no words, except a rather weak denial. “That’s not true. I’ll miss you. I’ve never forgot how you saved me from a flogging last winter.”

“Just go away and leave me alone!”

Weather always has and always will have an impact on agriculture and so economics, on human moods and movements and on war. As such it will always play a role in novels as well.


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