Weather is part of our experience as human beings in this world, and references to weather are as impossible to avoid in literature as they are in casual conversation. Our awareness of weather is not awfully precise, however, unless we are barricading against a hurricane or shoveling out from a two-foot snowfall. The daily pleasantries we utter to each other—"Nice day, isn't it?"; "Think it'll rain?"; "Cold enough for you?"—are not really as much about weather as they are about our desire to connect with one another in a safe and superficial way. Safe and superficial is great for casual human relationships but deadly in fiction. Your literary descriptions of weather should be fresh and necessary rather than banal and irrelevant.
Direct and Indirect Description of Weather Most readers like to know what the weather is like in a story they're reading—nothing elaborate, just a quick glimpse to determine whether it's winter or summer, raining or snowing. If you are using weather only to inform the readers—that is, if the weather actually has nothing to do with the events of the story—then your best bet is to keep the description as simple as possible:
It had been raining for three days.
When Tuesday finally came, the weather was clear and cold.
By the time Harold reached his aunt's house, it was snowing.
These examples provide a quick scan, the literary equivalent of sticking your finger into the wind or your head out the window. By providing direct, literal description, you allow readers to take note of the weather and get on with the story. However, if the weather is going to have some effect on the events of the story or provide a certain kind of atmosphere that the story requires, you should try to make your account of the weather more memorable.
One way to do that is to describe the weather indirectly, by closely observing how certain kinds of weather make the world look. For example, instead of describing a day as frigid, you might have a character observe a frozen field. In Jack Holland's "The Yard," a story about a man remembering his boyhood experience of his grandfather's death, the raw and dreary day is revealed to us through the character's physical surroundings:
The rain was standing in puddles between the cobblestones and in shallow little pools on the tops of the big barrels that were marshaled against the wall near the horse trough, row upon row, like great, dumpy soldiers. The puddles rippled in the cold February wind, which drove before it the little bits of straw floating on the stale water. The carts were covered with tarpaulin, their shafts lowered. My heart ached.
Note how little time the author spends on a direct account of the weather. He uses the words "rain" and "cold . . . wind," and that's it. Everything else is a reflection of the weather, from the "shallow . . . pools ... on the barrels" to the "rippled" puddles to the "floating" straw to the carts "covered in tarpaulin." We get the impression of a very, very wet day after an extremely heavy rain, for water is everywhere. We can also imagine a grey sky, a bone-chilling cold, and a general dreariness, though the author does not describe these things directly.
Indirect description has two benefits. One, it delivers you from resorting to tired descriptions: rainy days, heavy snows, blue skies. Two, indirectness does three jobs at once. In the story excerpt above, the carefully observed reflections of weather give us the condition of the weather (rainy), the condition of the setting (a simple Irish village), and the condition of the observer (heartbroken). Here, the weather becomes a poignant reflection of a young boy's bewilderment and sorrow.
Engaging the Senses when Describing Weather Weather is one of the most satisfying subjects for engaging all the senses. Weather can be seen, as in hailstones or snowflakes; weather can be heard, as in the drumming of rain on a tin roof; weather can be felt as moisture or heat or cold; weather can even be tasted, as in the sulphur tang of a steel mill on very hot days; and weather can be smelled, as in the scent of earth that comes with the first warm days after winter. Your senses give you a myriad of new ways to describe the familiar. Each sense describes a different aspect of the same weather.
Let's take a hot summer night and render it through all five senses:
Sight:Defeated and exhausted, Alice and I watched the August steam rising from the sidewalks.
Sound: We sat on the back porch, the hot night punctuated only by the click of ice in our glasses and the occasional snap of the neighbor's screen door.
Touch: The air was so thick on my arms it felt like sleeves.
Taste: My first sip of mint julep on Emma's steamy veranda meant summer was here at last.
Smell: The night was so hot and clear I could smell the lilacs from Jack's garden a half mile down the road.
Notice how the use of the senses transforms weather from reportage to experience. If your story depends on weather for a certain kind of atmosphere or insight into the characters' situation, then it is not enough to merely report the weather; it is your obligation to evoke the weather. The sensory details in the preceding examples turn weather into part of the story rather than a mere backdrop. Steam rising from the sidewalks makes the characters' defeat even more unbearable. The sound of ice in glasses and screen doors banging evoke all of summer, not just one hot night. The feeling of air as "sleeves" puts us, quite literally (and uncomfortably), inside the character's skin. The taste of mint julep evokes a certain lifestyle as well as the advent of summer. The scent of lilacs infuses the story with a small-town neighborliness.
When describing weather, try to forget about the exact condition of the weather and instead explore the ways in which certain weather makes the world look and smell and feel.