Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Janet Kellough - Dark and Stormy Night

The phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” has become a modern-day synonym for bad writing, a cliché to be avoided at all costs, the epitome of purple prose. But you know what? Sometimes it is a dark and stormy night, especially in Canada, especially in the wintertime and for most of our history, weather has had a huge impact on how Canadians live their lives.

In my first historical mystery On the Head of a Pin the hero, Thaddeus Lewis chases a suspected killer from Kingston to Wolfe Island. It’s early winter, one of those nights when the temperature plummets as soon as the sun goes down. The skim of ice that covers the river will barely hold the weight of a man:

A sleety snow began to blow from the northeast and at times Lewis would lose sight of the man entirely in the swirl. Then a break would come and he could pick out the green of Renwell’s ragged scarf. Or was that the green of the conifers growing on the opposite shore? He realized he could no longer be sure, for the bitter wind made his eyes water and the snow was sticking to his lashes.

He knew he had made a mistake as soon as he stepped down, but he couldn’t stop himself in time. The ice right over the middle of the river where the current ran swift gave way and his leg plunged through to the icy water. He could feel the current pulling at him, trying to drag him under the ice with it. The cold was perishing, and he knew it was only a matter of time before it took him.

The man Lewis was chasing eventually returns to save him, and while doing so, exonerates himself and therefore narrows the list of murder suspects.

In the second Thaddeus Lewis mystery, Sowing Poison, a ship has gone missing in an ice storm. The supposedly clairvoyant Clementine Elliott uses the uncertainty regarding the fate of the crew to solidify her reputation as a medium. She first pumps the town gossip for information:
“I hear there is great concern about the missing ship,” Clementine said.

“Oh my goodness, that’s a terrible thing! We can only hope that they turn up safe and sound. It’s happened before, you know, a ship caught in a storm and presumed lost, and then some time later you find out that everything is fine. It’s worrisome though.”

“How long will it be before we know for certain?

“Sometimes you never find out,” Meribeth said. “It’s a peculiar thing. Sometimes the lake never returns the wreckage, especially if the ship went down where the lake is deep. Other times, weeks might go by and then a body might be discovered on a shore far distant from where anyone would expect. Then again, it might be thrown up in front of the victim’s own home. There’s no accounting for what could happen, and all anybody can do is pray and wait.”

“That’s assuming that the ship was wrecked in the first place,” Clementine pointed out.

“Oh my, yes, the best news possible would be that they stayed snug in port somewhere. Even then, it might take some time before they felt it safe to set out again.”

“They tell me the captain is a local man.”

“Matt Spencer, yes and his sister is the cook.” And at that Meribeth settled in to relate everything she knew about the Spencer family.
All information Clementine can use to “predict” what has happened.

Weather in writing can certainly serve as a metaphor or provide atmosphere, but it’s at its best when it gets to drive the plot. So go ahead. Make it a dark and stormy night. And then make something happen because it’s a dark and stormy night. Canadians will understand exactly what you’re writing about.

Janet Kellough is an author and performance storyteller who loves bringing Canadian history to life. She has authored four novels - The Palace of the Moon, The Pear Shaped Woman, On the Head of a Pin and Sowing Poison as well as the semi-non-fictional Legendary Guide to Prince Edward County.


  1. Terrific post, Janet, on a subject dear to our hearts. No wonder Canadian crime writers are being called "the new Scandinavians!"

  2. Weather is almost always a character in Canadian novels, and in our lives as well. It's the potential for danger, the unpredictability and the sheer physical extremes that make it so compelling.