Everyone knows the phrase: "It was a dark and stormy night." Those of us who are writers often get a little chuckle out of it. But that chuckle doesn't mean there isn't something important happening in the background here.
What this cliche phrase tells us is that the environment in which characters move is, in most cases, at least as important as the characters themselves and the actions they take. In my first novel, Cold in the Light, for example, much of the action takes place at night and in the woods. The villains in that story are at home in the dark woods. The heroes are mostly city folk, and like all humans they are at least a little bit afraid of the dark.
Pitting the characters against harsh nature raises the stakes for those characters, and ups the suspense that a writer can wring out of a scene. It's a very effective way of adding depth to a story. I personally love to read these kinds of stories, where the characters must face not only other humans or wild beasts, but such forces as brutal cold, desiccated landscapes, mountains and wild seas, rain and wind. These kinds of settings tend to engage me in ways no amount of dialogue between two people sitting in a parlor somewhere ever could.
Jack London was a master at using harsh nature in his tales. One of his most memorable is available online. "To Build a Fire" is a virtual lesson in how to pit a character against nature. I highly recommend it.
Also, one of our own, Randy Johnson, has gone into the hospital. I haven't been able to find out how he is doing but I urge everyone to keep him in your thoughts.