Cleaned My Bookshelves, Discovered Treasure

Today I’ve spent some time rearranging books on my shelves. I purged a few things I don’t want either because I’ve read them and won’t read them again, or because I bought them on sale at a flea market in the hopes they would be useful for some of my history classes and found that they just weren’t specific enough or just not particularly useful for my purposes.

I also had a string of decorative LED lights that I bought from Big Lots and wanted to put on my shelves, so I needed to clear off the accumulated clutter and piles. Piles! Piles of stuff! Stuff in the form of way too many books for the shelf space available; a lot of knick-knacks, including Lego people, fossils, and some very nice mineral specimens; and steno books galore. Is there ever enough paper or art supplies?

Between shuffling books and dusting and sneezing, I came across some notes that I put together for a local writer’s group meeting on how to write atmosphere. And I thought, “Hey, why not turn that material into a blog post?” So in a few of upcoming posts, I’ll talk about some ideas for writing atmosphere, including setting, theme, word choice, and sentence structure. I initially wrote my notes with an emphasis on Gothic atmosphere, but after reading some of Ray Bradbury’s work for the biography and historical/cultural article I wrote for Salem Press’s forthcoming encyclopedia, I would like to expand my vision of what atmosphere is – although I have to tell you that Bradbury’s work has been compared to Gothic literature. For a man who is remembered primarily for his work in science fiction, Bradbury’s oeuvre included a great deal of horror short stories.

So, what is atmosphere in a story, and how does it affect the work? The term “atmosphere” is often used interchangeably with “mood,” but there is a subtle difference. Atmosphere is the external feeling that a place or setting projects to the reader, while mood describes what is happening with the characters in the story. That’s fairly easy to remember, isn’t it? Only the Earth can have an atmosphere, but only people and animals have moods.

Gothic literature was very good in creating atmosphere and relied heavily on tropes such as castles and secret passages. The weather in those Gothic stories was usually stormy, and the topography consisted of difficult landscapes that might include rocky terrain or dangerous cliffs. No flowery meadows! Gothic literature covered included spiritual and psychological topics, too, including religion, dreams, and ghosts.[1]

Creating atmosphere in your writing depends on the setting, theme, word choice, and sentence structure that you use. Your landscape can set the stage, but by using writing techniques such as foreshadowing, you will also develop atmosphere and give your readers an emotional context for your story that will draw them in.

Look out for the next blog post, where I’ll discuss setting. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

[1] For a good introduction to Gothic (fiction and otherwise), see Nick Groom, The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially chapter 8, “The Descent into Hell.”