Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

Make Them Sweat

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jul• 22•18

I’m so happy we had a few days of milder temperatures. Another heat wave is beginning today and lasting through the week. I’ve developed systems for keeping my hanging plants alive, and so far they’re all still blooming. Early mornings spent watering as the day began simmering, meant I returned indoors already slick with sweat. And thirsty. And not for the first time I wondered how people living in hot climates were adapting to climate changes. And how places where it’s not normally hot will cope with the challenges of high and sometimes dangerous temperatures.

Which brings me to writing about people and climate and weather and stress. Because people, including people in fiction, sweat. A natural biological reaction designed to cool the body. People who spend time outdoors can also end up with a sunburn. Sunburn is painful and peels and blisters.  Hot temperatures weary and can cause heat stroke and exhaustion and all sorts of health problems including organ failure and death. In fact, heat kills more Americans than other natural disasters.

Heat infiltrates every part of life. Gardens wilt and crops fail.  Car interiors are punishing. Swimmers take dangerous risks and drownings happen. Dogs pant and seek shade. In our region lightning strikes  cause forest fires.

Heatwaves and excessive heat have widespread consequences. In  fiction all weather should create consequences and reactions, even balmy weather.  Sustained heat will cause bigger dangers and ramifications. Droughts devastate agriculture and economies. Power shortages and outages happen.  Ice caps melt. Sea levels rise. Fields dry out and reservoirs shrink. When forests burn, smoke chokes the air and areas are evacuated.

If you’re writing any story where heat or exertion are going on, your characters need to react with realism, authenticity, and with lingering effects. A heat wave means waking up to a stifling apartment if you don’t have air conditioning. Day after sweltering day. In your historical novel set in the 1800s during summer (or even spring or fall) afternoon temperatures can be sweltering and punishing. Kitchens will be hellish. Ladies in the household might lie down for a nap wearing only a petticoat. Fieldhands drenched and parched and bent.

In dystopian fiction where climate change has caused  worldwide changes (called cli-fi) sobering realities shape the story. Often a collapse of the electrical grid or massive droughts are happening  or have occurred. Systems, institutions, and characters will suffer and  on every level.  It’s crucial that the inner rationale for how the situation came to be is established and consistent. Day-to-day survival might be medieval and punishing. The people  hungry and exhausted. Thirsts unquenched, fires unstoppable. Crops will fail or be raised using old-school techniques. Dust storms will swallow the landscape.

In every season notice the effects of weather and climate. In my book Between the Lines I wrote a chapter called Sensory Surround and make this point: Writers sometimes add weather to scenes, but then don’t portray the characters affected by it. For instance, a blizzard rages in a story, but then characters don’t shovel the sidewalk, slip on ice, or become chilled when outdoors. The furnace never fails and the pipes never freeze. Or, it rains in a scene, but no one becomes drenched, or jumps around puddles, or turns on the windshield wipers.

One more thing while we’re on the topic of sweat. People and characters can also sweat from anxiety, a panic attack, fever, or hot flashes. Excess sweating can be embarrassing. (been there) Sweating also can be an indication of an illness and medication. Puberty and pregnancy can also cause sweating.

I’m focusing on sweating here because it’s universal, it’s visible, and it’s another way of depicting a character reacting. So how often do your characters sweat?

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