Every book you read can teach you something about writing. Here are 3 things I learned about writing from reading L.A. Weather.
The last time I was in California was October 2019 for the WD Novel Writing Conference. Because it was only the second time I’d been to California—both times for work trips—I’d really only seen the inside of hotel conference rooms and the L.A. Convention Center, I decided to stay an extra day. My plan was to visit the Getty Museum because, before I worked for WD, I worked for an art book publisher and had heard great things about it.
But alas, my plans were spoiled due to wildfires (obviously my inconvenience in no way compares to the folks who lost their homes or livelihoods during the same event). On Sunday morning, the last day of the conference, Pasadena started filling up with smoke and after watching the morning news, it became clear that getting to the Getty was not going to be feasible: The roads there were blocked by fires and residents trying to leave the area.
That was the image that came to mind when I saw María Amparo Escandón’s novel L.A. Weather for the first time. The cover features a pool in the foreground with a wildfire burning nearby in the background and while the book isn’t entirely about wildfires, they do play a major role in the novel as we follow three generations of the Alvarado family for a year of their lives. The Alvarados navigate traumatic experiences, secrets, divorce, climate change, and more as they consider what it means to be family.
Here are three things I learned about writing from reading L.A. Weather.
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1. Focus on the family. As mentioned previously, this book follows the Alvarado family: Keila and Oscar, parents to three adult daughters, Claudia, Olivia, and Patricia. Also included in the family is Lola, the live-in nanny who took care of the three girls when they were children and who is now taking care of their children. While there are other members of the family—children and spouses of the daughters—the focus is on the core five and Lola. Escandón uses omniscient narration to show the thoughts, actions, and motivations of more characters than would otherwise be advisable if using first-person narration. On the other hand, focusing on the family unit provides a natural restraint from focusing on too many characters. Readers see things from many different perspectives, but because it’s kept to tight group interacting with each other, we don’t get confused or overwhelmed.
2. Weather can be a character without being overbearing. It’s clear from the title that the weather plays a key role in this novel and it does so from the initial scene. But, it’s not necessarily a novel about weather or climate change. Rather, it’s about a family whose lives are upended by weather in subtle ways, and this is achieved by making the weather a near-constant companion for one character. The novel opens when Olivia’s twin daughters disappear in the murky, unkept pool in Keila and Oscar’s backyard. As Keila wanders all over the property looking for the girls, she observes, “She first went out the back door to the end of the yard and checked in the detached garage, home to everything but cars. Oscar has used the right side of the space as a gym before he acquired the habit of watching the Weather Channel for eight hours at a time.” Here we learn Oscar is obsessed with the weather and subsequently, in the parts of the book that follow his experiences, this obsession is ever present. But we don’t know why Oscar feels this way and neither does his family. In the same way characters might try to figure out who a person might be spending secretive time with, Oscar’s family tries to figure out why he spends so much time thinking about the weather. In this way, weather functions as a character alongside Oscar.
3. For a book that spans a year, don’t show every day. This may seem obvious. In books that span more than a year, writers never show what happens every day. They skip over the quotidian parts of characters’ lives in favor of jumping to the exciting moments or life-altering decisions. But in books (both fiction and memoirs) that span a shorter length of time—days, months, a year—it’s easy to draft a version of the book that says something about every day. In L.A. Weather, each month is a chapter and only a few days appear as subsections of that chapter. For example, when one character has a medical emergency, we don’t need to follow her day-by-day progress, but rather, we see representative moments. In other words, just hit the highlights.