The train stranded in the snow, the hotel on an island in a thunderstorm, or the remote village cut off by a landslide – they are classic set ups employed by generations of novelists and screenwriters. You assemble a cast of disparate characters, lure them to an isolated place and ensure freak weather or some other natural disaster prevents them from escaping or summoning help. These plots work so well, because they put the characters under stress, create danger and, just like disasters in real life, bring out the best and the worst in people.
In most of these scenarios, the weather or natural disaster is there to create a crucible in which to trap the characters and watch them fight it out like rats in a cage. But often there is only limited interaction between the characters and the weather or disaster. The focus is on the interplay between the characters inside the crucible. One brave soul will probably go for help, and we will see them stagger back inside defeated, covered in snow. The tension will be ratcheted up when the storm cuts the lights and phone – never an excuse a medieval crime writer has to invent. But the weather or disaster is really the scenery, the cage, and the ‘sympathetic background’ that we all remember from school essays. But for me, weather extremes and disasters can become the warp thread through which the plot is woven, rather than simply the background to it. I like to think of these disasters as living characters within the plot, with their own moods and personalities.
Real disasters or extreme weather has been the starting point and core inspiration for the most of my historical thrillers. ‘Company of Liars’ was set in 1348, the year of the first outbreak of the Black Death in England. The plague, though it is not their principal enemy, is viewed by the characters as a beast, a creature following their scent, which they try to outrun as it pursues them across England. Creating the sense that the disease is an animal who is hunting them, even as they try to escape a human killer, helps to heighten the atmosphere of fear and threat felt by the characters.
But the weather is equally important in this novel. In 1348, it rained every day from Midsummer’s Day until Christmas. That’s what drove people to congregate indoors and spread the pneumonic version of the plague which devasted England. But I wanted the readers to feel that the rain is a sullen and moody companion trudging along beside the characters. At times, they try to ignore the miserable grouch, yet he is always there, annoying them. I hoped the readers would get a sense of how sapping the constant rain must have been both to body and spirit. Of course, if in a novel the rain comes at the end of a prolonged drought then it would be an entirely different character and personality.
In contrast, ‘The Plague Charmer’ is set 1361, during the 2nd wave of the Black Death which, unlike the first, targeted the young and fit. The characters in this novel were not travellers on the road, but trapped in a village, and each viewed the plague in different ways, just as in life every person relates differently to the same individual. Some perceived the plague as a malevolent cloud that could sense your fear and would be drawn to you. Others regarded it as a vengeful angel leading them triumphantly into battle and cutting down their enemies. The former jester in the novel tells the readers – ‘The owls knew it was coming. The villagers knew it was coming. Even I knew it was coming.’ Whatever form it takes, for all of the characters in the novel, this plague is not simply a sickness but a sentient presence, which makes it more unnerving and adds another layer of menace to the deadly pandemic.
My new Jacobean thriller, ‘The Drowned City,’ opens with a real historical event, the Bristol tsunami which, in January 1606, devastated the south west coast of England and Wales. I could have used the flood as a classic crucible setting, a group of villagers marooned by water, struggling to survive. But this was a disaster that sent shock waves through the whole country, even in places untouched by the giant wave, and with it came the fear that the massive destruction of ports and shipping would leave England open to invasion.
Those characters who live by the coast view the sea storming onto the land as a jealous mistress who feels neglected and must be placated. Others regard the giant wave as a monster or golem summoned by the Devil. Some see it as a savage guard dog that God has been holding back but has now unleashed to drive out the wicked. How each character personifies the flood in turn influences how they perceive the flood victims – the dead must have been sinners; the dead were innocents murdered by those who summoned the monster; the dead were simply unlucky.
While both flood and fire destroy, a flood also reveals the buried corpses, ‘like a fanatical preacher determined to cleanse the world and expose all that was hidden. A man’s chamber pot hung upon a church cross; a bloodstained shift fluttered from a treetop; a forbidden holy relic was dumped on a drowned pig.’ And so, in the novel, the flood also becomes a character bent on exposing the secretive underworld of Jacobean treachery and spies.
An author doesn’t need to spell out to readers the character and personality of the weather or disaster as they imagine it. In ‘Company of Liars’, I don’t explicitly use the image of a crotchety curmudgeon when describing the rain. But if the novelist can imagine it as a living entity, and ask themselves what guise it would present to each of the human characters, then weather and disasters can become much more than a device to explain why the lights have gone out.
KJ Maitland has previously written eight medieval thrillers under the name of Karen Maitland, and also writes as one of the Medieval Murderers.
The Drowned City by K J Maitland (Out Now)
1606. A year to the day that men were executed for conspiring to blow up Parliament, a towering wave devastates the Bristol Channel. Some proclaim God's vengeance. Others seek to take advantage. In London, Daniel Pursglove lies in prison waiting to die. But Charles FitzAlan, close adviser to King James I, has a job in mind that will free a man of Daniel's skill from the horrors of Newgate. If he succeeds. For Bristol is a hotbed of Catholic spies, and where better for the lone conspirator who evaded arrest, one Spero Pettingar, to gather allies than in the chaos of a drowned city? Daniel journeys there to investigate FitzAlan's lead, but soon finds himself at the heart of a dark Jesuit conspiracy - and in pursuit of a killer.