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. 69

3-Mile-marker_DSCN1041It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a Thursday Writing Prompt. Between the crush of trying to finish my NaNo novel and the holidays it’s been a crazy time. I won NaNo with 66,275 words written, but I did not finish the novel. About three chapters into it I found myself pretty much lost and just writing what felt like filler material. My characters are doing things but I don’t have a good backstory for the plot yet. I think it was a novel not ready to be written!

I’m thinking of it as a “zero draft” instead of a first draft, which means it’s more than an outline but not coherent enough for a first draft, and certainly not a finished story. In case you can’t tell, I’m a “pantser,” which means I write first and then worry about sorting out details and making sense of a story. Some people will tell you that you must outline first, and I have no doubt that an outline is very useful. If you don’t know where your story should go, how do you know when you’ve gotten there? The problem for me is that I just can’t work “cold.” I need something on paper before I can sketch the outline.

So, for this week’s Thursday writing prompt, try working backward from a written story to give it structure and fill in some details about characters and their relationships. Take something that you’ve written and create an outline for it. Go with the kind of list-type outline that you were taught in school, not one of the mind-mapping outlines or visual aids. It doesn’t have to be one of those outlines with many levels and roman numerals. Don’t worry over what level an item needs to be.

Try this approach: write an outline as a series of sentences or a bullet list that gives a rough shape to the story. Each item on the list could represent a chapter in a book, for instance. The idea is that once you’ve written this outline you’ll have a clear path from start to finish of where the story should go. And once you’ve finished that, you add more detail to each item as you see fit. So an outline for chapter one of a novel could have a sentence that tells where the story begins. Then there might be additional bullet items to list the characters in a scene, weather, setting, etc.

My outlines when I’m writing an article or research paper tend to be a list of sentences on the page — what I call “notes to self.” Remember, you’re not getting graded on this outline. Its sole purpose is to provide a plan for your writing, no matter how pretty or ugly it is. And speaking to beauty: if artwork is your thing, try hand writing your outline and using colored pens or pencils. Sometimes taking a slightly different approach to writing helps loosen the creative spirit in all of us.

Good luck!