Getting the ‘atmosphere right’

Posted: March 6, 2012 in The WIPs - Nevill, Trivialities, rants & other ephemera

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.

  1. M M Bennetts says:

    Probably one of the great atmospheric masterpieces of the twentieth century is Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. You might wish to have a look. Yes, it’s a ‘murder mystery’. But with a difference, because Sayers mirrors the emotional surges of the community with the weather of the Fens. It’s quite stupendous.

    When writing about the Napoleonic wars, one thing I found/find is that the people were very much closer to the land back then, very much tied to the agricultural year, and absolutely affected by the mini-Ice Age they were living through which was turning everything upside down and making a nonsense of all their plans. So I do a lot of work to get a proper sense of all that–a horse-drawn world is very different than ours–and then I weave that through the work. I’m told it works.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks MM Bennetts. This wasn’t actually a plea for help with establishing ‘atmosphere’ in my work. It’s already there and I’m more than happy with it. I was thinking more about how a reader (or the writer) could possibly know that a novel about the distant past has the ‘right’ atmosphere. It’s extraordinarily subjective. For instance, I can’t abide books where the dialogue is in Forsoothly or Fake Olde. It feels wrong. Other people love them and, for them, they feel right. I read in a book review the other day that the writer had provided a detailed look at the silk trade in her chosen time. The reviewer was praising that. I probably wouldn’t have. As I said above, I’m much more of an impressionist – in reading and writing – than that. My work really does revolve around the people involved. The events are important, as is the backdrop of landscape, architecture and daily life, but I’d rather the feel of the books (their atmosphere) derived from the characters rather than what I’d see as tedious descriptions of this or that. Daubs and splashes of colour are important and they are there in my work, but that’s just what they are – daubs and splashes. I’ll know if it works for other people as much as it does for me when they tell me it does.

  2. I am particularly interested in the creation of atmosphere in historical – and modern fiction – and I’m a sucker for any book where I find it. (M.m. – I completely agree about Dorothy Sayers)
    I have often been told – and am always absolutely delighted – that I am fairly good at creating atmosphere myself, but I think I use a good deal more detailed description than you believe in – though (I hope) it is never excessive or gratuitous. However, none of us has the faintest idea what atmosphere truly existed during any period in the past, but many of us – based on considerable research – have a strong idea of what we THINK it was like – or merely perhaps what we HOPE it was like. Arousing the same or similar picture in the reader’s imagination is all we can hope for.
    A believable atmosphere of the place and times inspires greater sentiment and – surely for everyone – brings the storyline and characters to life, thus increasing simple entertainment. In other words, a book without atmosphere is flat.
    As soon as some kind soul invents time travel, I shall put my hand up immediately. In the meantime I want to create something strong enough to SEEM believable to my readers. Without the possibility of corroboration, we cannot attempt absolute accuracy. And yes oif course you’re dead right – how do we know if the same atmosphere we are feeling as we write is actually the same one the reader is absorbing? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Each of us has our own input according to our personality and experience and every reader helps to write the book he is reading.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Exactly, Barbara! It’s fascinating to me that one person can love a book “I felt I was really there!” that another person doesn’t enjoy at all “It felt so forced, so fake!” And this whole level of detail thing – when my husband reads my work, there’s never quite enough for him, but my current much trusted ‘outside’ reader tells me it’s just fine. I find detail can gets in the way sometime, other people can’t get enough.
      My ‘free imagination’ writing is very much character driven (a term that one person told me turns her stomach). I’d thought my HF wip would be much more event and plot driven, but I’m finding that it isn’t at all. Now that I’ve got a proper handle on my two main characters (and it took me almost two years to track down the three articles that clinched it for me), I’m letting them tell the story. It’s well signposted by the things that happened to them and the things they did, but I’m enjoying letting them take me on the journey.
      And that time machine? – save a seat for me.

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