Seen in a comment on a blog re a work of historical fiction: “… you got the atmosphere right”. Which leads me to some questions. How does the reader know? How, for that matter, does the writer? What’s the basis for this praise? Did they mean ‘you’ve matched the atmosphere in other works of historical fiction I’ve enjoyed”? Or has that reader managed to glean something from (largely) atmosphere-free non-fiction? Have they travelled in time and actually felt the atmosphere for themselves?
These aren’t cynical questions. I’m actually perplexed by this. The ‘atmosphere’ of any novel is constructed by the dual actions of reading and writing. The writer feels it, tries to convey it and, if they’ve done it well, the reader feels it as well. But is it even the same atmosphere?
I’m asking these questions because I know my work doesn’t have the same atmosphere as the work of the writer referred to in the blog mentioned above. (It doesn’t matter who it was, except I do need to say they’re a sound and respected writer of historical fiction; someone who has a place on my bookshelf; someone who’s written about the same time period and people that I am.) Though the sweep of the story is huge, my focus is tighter. I’m trying to capture two things: the affects of the Wars of the Roses on various members of a single family, and contextualising the Wars within the lives of these people. it wasn’t all about the battles and the plotting – ordinary life* still went on, even when husbands went to war, or were locked up on charges of treason, or fled the country.
*Such as is it was amongst the nobility in 15th century England.
I’ve set myself a fairly strict rule: If it’s not something I’d go into in a novel set now, then I’m not going to in a novel set then. No excruciating description of feasts, household rituals, clothes &c. I don’t much like reading that kind of thing and I certainly don’t enjoy attempting to write it! For instance, apart from not having a clue as to the size and consituency of Maud Stanhope’s household, even if I did have names, ranks and serial numbers, I’d be tempted to cull it back to something more manageable. An impressionist representation of a noblewoman’s household, if you like. So, will this render my atmosphere thinner, poorer? And how will I know when (if) I’ve got it ‘right’?
The proof will, of course, be in the pudding. And perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. If people read my book and enjoy it, feel it, then maybe that’s all that’s needed, whatever comprises my atmosphere. I’ll know I’ve got it right when someone tells me I have.