For those of you who don’t know me well, I live in a tiny town called Cambria, on the Central Coast of California. I moved here 27 years ago to briefly stay with my mother and get a summer job. I was leaving a relationship in L.A. I needed my own car, and first and last months’ rent.
Before I moved away from L.A., I spent five years in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley. In a home with no functioning air conditioning. Every summer it would get up to 106-107 degrees and stay there for about a week. Even night didn’t help much. I remember sitting out on the back patio in the dark, waiting for the heat to break, and the best relief it could manage was somewhere in the 90s.
It may seem like a bizarre statement., but Cambria doesn’t get hot. The reason my mother chose this town (other than it’s beauty, and proximity to the ocean) is because it’s never life-threateningly hot or life-threateningly cold. A couple of years ago I tried to explain to a friend in Kentucky that summers are never hot in Cambria. I think he found it hard to believe. So I linked him to a Weather Channel page of average temperatures, with a graph line for the average high that never varies more than ten or so degrees above or below a center line in the 60s. Before you think I’m being smug, or bragging, I should mention that being in the fog belt offers a combination of cool and damp that leaves many feeling they can never get warm. I’m not one of them. I’m just saying it’s not everybody’s ideal weather. But to me it’s heaven.
Thing is, I love the desert. I love the feel of it. I love the red rock, the cactus, the variegated mountains on the horizon. So I go visit in the winter. But I send my characters there in the heat.
The thing I love most about fictional heat is that it can be a character in its own right. Because you can see it, in addition to feeling it. You can see it in the sweat rolling down from people’s hatbands and disappearing under their collars. And you can describe a beautiful, stark desert vista with panache, but doesn’t it take on a whole new dimension if your character is viewing it through wavy bands of heat distortion?
My first novel Funerals for Horses (not suitable for teens) was set for the most part in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. I wasn’t the last time I brought my characters into heat. Because not only can heat be a character, it can be conflict. And we all know that without conflict there’s no story. My forthcoming novel “Walk Me Home,” out next year (adult but with some YA crossover potential), begins with 16-year-old Carly and her kid sister Jen walking their way across much of Arizona, alone, wandering deeper and deeper into the desert heat. Of course the fact that they’ve been recently orphaned is conflict, combined with the fact that they can’t get in touch with the ex-stepfather Carly is sure will take them in. But through every minute of every long day, it’s just them versus the heat.
Extreme cold has many of the same fictional qualities. And you can see cold, too, because your characters’ very breath becomes visible. And it can certainly provide life-threatening conflict. And, having grown up in snowy Buffalo, New York, I know it well enough to write about it. But somehow, for sheer mood, I’m more likely to choose heat.
I feel connected to the natural world, and so I’m unlikely to write about people only, shut inside their little man-made houses and malls, separated from the sky, the rain, the earth, the weather. I think that’s one reason I love road stories so much, and return to them again and again. Because it puts people out in the real world.
In real life, I love the road, too. I love to get behind the wheel and go places. But mostly in the winter. When it’s not so hot. I love heat fictionally. I’m happy to let my characters experience it for me.