Instructions for a Heatwave
How can we use hot weather in our writing?
I can't believe that four months ago I was searching for writing which powerfully conveyed cold weather. Now, in the UK, we are in the middle of a heatwave!
F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably conveys hot weather, and I have written about how he 'shows not tells' us about the heat in the blog of that name.
Another writer who comes to mind is L.P Hartley. Hartley's novel 'The Go Between' is set in one of those famously hot summers leading up to the First World War. The increase in temperature is used, retrospectively, to reflect the growing tensions in Europe, as well as the tensions between characters. As with Fitzgerald, Hartley is adept at making us feel the heat without establishing it directly. Take for example, the beginning of chapter seven, when Leo, the novel's protagonist, observes: Ever since yesterday the water-meadow seemed to have dried up. The rusty pools beside the causeway had receded; the willows shimmered in a greyish haze. By chapter ten this has become : I climbed the stile into the water meadow and at once the sun caught me in its fierce embrace. What strength it had! The boggy pools that fringed the causeway were almost dried up; the stalks that had been below the water-line showed a band of dirty yellow where the sun had scorched them. And standing on the sluice platform I saw almost with dismay how far the level of the river had sunk. On the blue side, the deep side, I could see stones at the bottom that had never been visible before; and on the other side, the gold and green side, the water was almost lost to view beneath the trailing weeds which, piled one on another, gave a distressing impression of disarray. And the water-lilies, instead of lying on the water, stuck up awkwardly above it. What can we learn from Hartley's approach? That specific detail is always more effective than generalisation, and that charting the effect the heat has on the same natural features effectively conveys the changes the heat brings about.
Heatwaves can also operate symbolically: in the novel Leo tells us: I felt I had been given the freedom of the heat, and I roamed about in it as if I was exploring a new element. I liked to watch it rise shimmering from the ground and hang heavy on the tops of the darkening July trees. I liked the sense of suspended movement that it gave or seemed to give, reducing everything in Nature to the stillness of contemplation. I liked to touch it with my hand, and feel it on my throat and round my knees which now were bare to its embrace. I yearned to travel far, even farther into it, and achieve a close approximation with it; for I felt that my experience of it would somehow be cumulative, and that if it would only get hotter and hotter there was a heart of heat I should attain to. Hartley personifies the heat, to show the power it has over the character. Of course, he only sees it from his perspective, but a modern reader can set the heatwave in context: as a warm and golden time that could never be returned to after the ravages of war.
I have no idea if the weather will still be hot when this blog goes out: if not, I hope the memory of an English heatwave will linger, inspiring us to write convincingly, figuratively and powerfully about the way the sun affects our lives and those of our characters.