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.”


Thursday Writing Prompt No. 40

Lilacs in bloom at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

It’s been spring for nearly a month now, but the weather has been so volatile that I’m not sure if we’re still in winter or if we went straight through to summer this year. But there have been a few nice days, and even with allergies, I’ve managed to get outside in the greenery and get some nice photographs of spring plants. So what I thought would be a good Thursday Writing Prompt would be describing a spring setting. Use the photograph above as an idea, but don’t stop there.

Describe a landscape and how it looks, smells, and feels during the spring. Don’t forget that not every flower or bush blooms at the same time, and if you’re seeing crocuses then probably nothing else has bloomed yet. And the ground might still be hard or even frozen in some places. Spring is a transition month and it can be cold or hot, still or windy, dry or wet. Don’t go for the usual descriptions of flowers; try showing your readers just how hard the ground still is even with a few crocuses in bloom. Let your words work to make the texture of that ground come alive. The more sensory experience that you can put into your writing, the more the readers will feel like your setting is a real place. Try to include sounds, smells, and touch as well as visual description.

Your goal should be to write several paragraphs describing a setting of your choice, and what it is like in the spring. Early or late spring is your choice, but do try to capture the essence of change that is happening during this season. Go for a walk and experience the spring, even if it’s a short stroll around the block or just stepping outside onto an apartment balcony. What does the air smell like? Is the wind warm or still cold? Is the humidity high or low? Put these into your narrative for a better description and to pull readers in.