Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

W = Weather

My grandfather used to say, "Watch the weather," as he scanned that line of hills between earth and sky. 

When DH and I first moved to the Inland Northwest (eastern Washington State), we walked out one fine sunny fall day to explore the neighborhood. At least the weather was fine until those storm clouds moved in. The rain poured down so hard, we were soaked in moments. The temperature plummeted. We began to shiver as we ran back towards home; the wind and rain continued to buffet us. At home, we were dry, warm, safe.

I've seen serious weather just twice. Once at Atlantic City, as a large thunder storm moved up the east coast, maybe morphing into something worse. And once somewhere in Minnesota, as we drove west through a tornado.

And the car lifted off the road
Minnesota, 2007 (Camp)
Sometimes I wonder what the weather was like for those fur traders who traveled across Canada or settled at one of the outlying posts. When Letitia Hargrave, wife of the Chief Factor, arrived at York Factory, she burst into tears. That may have been related to the three-month voyage from home, the hordes of bugs that greeted her at the end of the summer, or the isolation of the post itself. 

But when winter came, everyone bundled in layers and layers of clothing lined with furs. At first the buildings at York Factory had been built of thick walls of hand-quarried stone, but the winters were so cold, those stones cracked. Even the rum froze. I've camped out in the winter when our first act in the morning was to brush the snow off the water jugs. Now, if we can see our breath when we wake up, we head to motels.

But at York Factory, the average low is 20 degrees F, warming up to 28 degrees F by May. In 1846, the ice did not clear from Hudson's Bay until June. James Hargrave, Chief Factor then, described York Factory weather as "nine months of winter, varied by three of rain and mosquitoes" (McGoogan 52).

That's a long time to huddle close to the fire in fur-lined jackets, or to go hunting in the depth of winter for food. One 19th Century hunting trip at York Factory ended badly when an apprentice boy simply wandered off in the snow. In the spring, they found the boy's hat made of fox fur. Not even his bones remained.

So what do thoughts of weather have to do with writing? How do writers make the settings of their stories come alive without thinking about those times of we shivered through storms?  What does survival mean but a chance at redemption, another chance to make anew all that is good?

We're nearing the end of the April A to Z Blogging Challenge. Tomorrow, the X factor for us all.

An excellent book that takes us back to York Factory in the 19th Century is Ken McGoogan's Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer who Discovered the Fate of Franklin