P J Tracy: ‘Weather is not just a background detail; it’s a main character’
WEATHER WARNING… WEATHER WARNING…
That doomful little banner on the bottom of the television screen is preceded by a grating beep-beep-beep, and followed by dire prognostications of impending apocalypse, and advice on how to avoid it. In Minnesota, that beeping has a Pavlovian effect – we instantly know we’re in trouble of some sort and plan accordingly. During winter, we know to fill our larders and prepare to hibernate until the meteorologists tell us we won’t freeze to death in our tracks if we venture outside. Seriously. When authorities tell you exposed skin will freeze in five minutes or less, and you could die of hypothermia in under an hour if you’re not dressed properly, you listen.
Are we talking about Siberia? Sometimes it seems like it during the dark months of winter in Minnesota. You might be thinking we’re all masochists and it’s a miracle any of us are still alive. But it’s not without its upside. It is a given that writers often draw inspiration from hardship and extreme circumstances, and the possibility of losing fingers or toes, a nose or a life in a relatively short period of time qualifies in my opinion. It’s not always like this here, in fact, it’s an infrequent occurrence considering there are 365 days in a year. But there are times when Mother Nature is most assuredly out to kill us, and how can you not write about that?
Here, weather is not just a background detail; it’s a main character, in fiction and in life. And when you are housebound, completely at the mercy of forces far greater than you, the mind churns with dire scenarios and vivid imaginings of facing the elements that are wreaking havoc just outside your door. Howling wind and subzero temperatures demand artistic expression. I imagine my characters outside while I sit in my cozy house in front of the computer. There is a certain squeak when you walk on snow frozen to thirty below Fahrenheit; a certain smell that comes with your sinus tissues freezing immediately when you take a breath; the instant numbness you feel when the wind hits exposed skin. It’s a lonely, desolate, and hopeless environment, and it inspires words like nothing else.
The latest installment of the Twin Cities series, Ice Cold Heart, is set in such a winter in Minneapolis. If you are sitting on a beach somewhere reading this (and I hope you are!), it will definitely cool you off, and so will Ice Cold Heart, which is chilling in more ways than one. Weather has the ability to echo and augment human atmosphere in writing, and it also inspires some very grave scenarios, as is the case in this book. There is a certain depth of field that comes from living with extraordinary and violent fluctuations of any kind, including weather. I’m not saying I’m grateful about any of this, but it does expand my palette.
You may wonder why anybody lives here, but the truth is, the spectacular springs and summers and autumns Minnesota is known for give us winter amnesia. We only forget we should have moved to Arizona or Florida when it’s too late to leave our homes safely, and by the time the sun finally attains a reasonable apex and things start to come to life again, we forget the past and live for the moment. And that’s not a bad way to be.