Rightly so, most zombie apocalypse novels concentrate on getting the zombie set pieces spot on, making them both mesmerizing and terrifying. However, in order to make a zombie novel truly riveting, there has to be more than that to them. There has to be good characterisation, there has to be conflict, there has to be landscape, and, finally, there has to be texture.
What do I mean by texture? Well, texture is all those extra additions which make a zombie novel seem real. They are little bits here and there that remind the reader that this isn’t just a fantasy story, but instead that it’s something which is happening in a real world, very much like the one they, themselves, inhabit.
One of the best ways I have found of adding texture is through the use of weather. In most parts of the world, the weather changes day by day, hour by hour, and, in some places, minute by minute, and by referencing this, you can give the reader a greater understanding of the mood of the story, and the characters within it.
Really, there’s three ways that you can use weather to add texture. The first is comparative weather. This is where the weather in a specific scene matches the feelings of the scene itself, helping to emphasize and amplify the internal mood of the characters and any conflict they are facing. This can be the use of rain or drizzle when the characters are feeling run down or depressed, sunshine when they are feeling happy or a sudden storm when their luck unexpectedly shifts. Comparative weather is very tempting to use, but it should always be used sparingly. If you use it too frequently, then it quickly becomes clichéd.
The second is contrasting weather. We’ve all experienced a time in our lives when we’ve been in the foulest of foul moods on the brightest of bright sunny days, or been unable to stop smiling, despite the fact that it’s pouring with rain, soaking us to the skin. These are examples of contrasting weather, and when used in a novel, they can really help to bring it alive. This is because while they’re at odds with the situation the characters might find themselves in, everyone can remember a time when they felt this way themselves, and this makes the characters seem more real. With contrasting weather, you can have characters breaking out into laughter in the middle of a rainstorm because they’re ecstatic at just having escaped from a dangerous situation, or downcast and depressed as the sun rises to reveal a clear blue summer sky because they have just lost one their number to the undead. Again, as with comparative weather, contrasting weather has to be used sparingly, or it will quickly become old.
The final way of using weather is perhaps my favourite, and it’s to use weather as an additional element that the characters have to deal with. Fighting off marauding zombies is one thing, but how much more scary is it to have to be fighting them off in the middle of a hurricane, when the characters also have to struggle against the storm as well? Or what about being attacked by zombies in a fog-filled forest, where you can barely see more than a few feet in any direction? That would be terrifying, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t know if that blurred shape coming towards you was a friend or foe until it was almost too late. Then there are thunderstorms and tornadoes, which can unexpectedly tear down defences, letting zombies into otherwise safe encampments, or a ice-storm that abruptly turns the world your characters inhabit into a white hell and makes running away all but impossible. And what about heatwaves? Can you imagine being huddled together in a small, airless room with zombies hammering on the boarded up windows as the mercury in the thermometer hits 110 degrees? Or sweating away in quickly cobbled together zombie-proof armour on a scorching summer’s day as you try to both hold back a marauding horde of undead and not pass out from heat stroke? If used correctly, all of these possibilities would add to the tension of any given scene by providing that extra layer of information and visualisation.
These are just a few of the possibilities that are out there when it comes to using weather to add texture to a zombie novel, and with a bit of searching, you can always find just the right bit of weather for any given situation. There is the weird and the wonderful, things like weather bombs, or microbursts or white squalls. There are clouds of every different variety from wispy, feather-like stratus to the ever-threatening cumulonimbus or the out-right bizarre mammatus clouds that always make me feel like the end of the world is coming. There’s zephyrs, and breezes, and gale force winds. There’s sleet and snow and hail and rain (the Inuit might, or might not, have 47 words for snow, but here in Scotland we have at least twice as many for all the different types of rain you can get). Really, the options are endless.
Of course, as with any literary device, weather has to be use sparingly. After all, what you are writing is meant to be a zombie novel and not a weather forecast, but get it just right and it will bring a level of reality and believability to your story that you will find difficult to generate in any other way.
So how to you get it just right? Well, there’s no hard and fast rules here. What you are looking to achieve is having just enough references to the weather to paint the right pictures in the readers head without them ever consciously noticing what’s going on. This means that weather references need to be subtly woven into the rest of the story until they seem such an integral part of it that the reader couldn’t imagine a scene without it. This is not always easy to achieve, but if you can get it right, it can pay off big time because of the depth and the texture it brings to your writing.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.