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Crime novelist-pathologist-Santa Claus says Nature can play key role in writing

To say author and pathologist, Dr. Bradley Harper, has been busy recently is a severe understatement.

Aside from being a volunteer adviser at the COVID Call Center of his local health department, Brad - who was one of the judges in our last ‘Wild Atlantic Way Writing’ competition and a tutor on ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – is working on his third novel (his first two being ‘A Knife In The Fog’ and its sequel, ‘Queen’s Gambit’) and has been guest at many conferences.

Interestingly, Brad (69), will be keynote speaker at the Virginia Writers Guild annual conference on December 5, his topic, ‘Starting Writing Later in Life.’ 

For Sherlock Holmesian adventurers, Brad also launched an online publication free to access. Not only, a comic, ‘Dark Tryst,’ based on an erotic vampire poem Brad wrote twenty years ago, has just been released. 

Santa Claus to hundreds of children every year, bearded Brad will soon start his eighth year in his seasonal role at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg.

Being so busy, we’re delighted we were able to catch up on the soon-to-be septuagenarian and even more delighted he agreed to write a short essay on the use of Nature in creative writing, aimed at encouraging you to enter your work in the latest (WAWA) 500-word, 1,000 euro flash fiction, creative non-fiction competition (deadline December 10) in which Nature features prominently.

Here is what Brad had to say.

‘How Weather Can influence A Story’ Or ‘It Was A Dark And Stormy Night’

by Dr. Bradley Harper

Yes, even one of the oldest tropes in writing can still teach us something. We are biologic constructs after all and our body is keenly attuned to the environment. We as writers are at our best when we can harness our animal awareness with the emotional state of our characters. Who hasn’t felt wonderfully alive and in the present moment when viewing a sunrise or smelling wet leaves after an autumn rain? Our senses demand our attention when they detect a threat or sudden joy. If they did not, humankind would have never worked its way up to the top of the food chain.

I was struggling with my first novel (and every one since), and one of the toughest decisions I had to make was the title. It is set in 1888 and a young Arthur Conan Doyle reluctantly joins the hunt for Jack the Ripper. After several false starts I finally settled on, “A Knife in the Fog.” As soon as I stumbled upon it I knew it was the right choice, for I was tying the suspense and mystery inherent in fog with the risk a knife represents. I was telling the reader that just as a shark lurks beneath the surface, somewhere in the London fog a knife was poised to strike. This juxtaposition created tension that was only released once the hand holding the knife was stilled.

Weather can be used to reflect a character’s mood by having them brood through a window at a gathering storm, foretelling of a conflict about to come to a head, or as a contrast. Your hero may have just gotten terrible news and be sitting on a park bench on a sunny spring day as a family picnic is ongoing nearby, thus enhancing the image of your character’s isolation.

Weather can also become your character’s adversary, an opposing force they must overcome to achieve their goal. Adventure and Science Fiction stories use this to good effect. I have only to think to the real-life struggle of the Shackleton expedition on the ship The Endurance, or the recent motion picture with Sandra Bullock, Gravity, where the entire story revolves around a vicious clash between the protagonist and the universe to live another day and what that struggle revealed to the characters about themselves.

Let me restate that last sentence for emphasis. The struggle is only a writing exercise until it allows us to see the humanity and strength of your protagonist. They must come to a new understanding of who they are and what really matters in their lives. If they are not changed by this struggle, then you might have a great plot but you’re lacking a story.

Unless or until the environment causes a change in your hero or reveals something unique about them to the reader, “It was a dark and stormy night” is nothing more than a weather report.


Here is an extract from Brad’s first novel, ‘‘A Knife In The Fog,’ illustrating his use of Nature to create setting.

(The setting: Doyle has received a letter from (Jack) the Ripper saying he has a hostage. The Ripper challenges Doyle to meet him down the tracks from a railroad station by midnight or the hostage will die. He, Professor Bell, Doyle's inspiration for Holmes, and Miss Margaret Harkness, their guide within Whitechapel, sally forth together on a cold damp November night to meet the Ripper on a battleground of his choosing).

'We walked eastward in this manner, slowly, for when the clouds passed over it was hard to see, while the rough stone of the rail grading made for uneven footing. The damp cold made my breath fog as I breathed in the taste of the moist earth, which oddly reminded me of the lingering after-notes of a good German Riesling. The only sound was our footsteps on the slick stones and our increasingly labored breathing as we struggled to move forward. The mist began to rise slowly from the cold ground, heralding the approach of a thick London fog.

After five minutes, we had walked approximately four hundred yards, and the tracks had decreased to two from the eight that departed the station.

Suddenly, Margaret cried out, “Look! Straight ahead!”

The clouds parted a little . . . I could observe a man dressed in white crawling on his hands and knees, headed away from us, trying vainly to stand up, only to resume crawling.

Margaret flew down the tracks, while the professor, hindered by the loose stones, lagged behind. I cast a quick look over my shoulder, expecting Graff to come at us out of the shadows, but not seeing him I joined the chase with a will.

We were about forty yards behind as Margaret reached the man. Abruptly he stood up and, with a constable’s cudgel he had shielded beneath him, struck her a severe blow full in the face.

Margaret gave a weak cry, dropping her derringer and crumpling at his feet; her bowler hat fell off, exposing her braided hair.

Bell and I briefly halted, stunned by this turn of events.

The man calmly removed the white coat and threw it away before grasping Margaret by the hair with his right hand and roughly pulling her to her knees.

“My compliments, lady, and gentlemen,” said Herr Graff. “Right on time.”'

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