Atmospheric Pressure

In my previous post, I discussed how the appropriate atmosphere can enhance a story and connect readers emotionally to your story.

But mood has another purpose besides contributing to the setting, and that’s in making things harder for your characters.

The best, most effective use of atmosphere is when it’s laced through the story and contributes actively to the plot. A simple example can be drawn from almost any Dean Koontz thriller, where he will use weather to heighten difficulties for his protagonist. Often he will have his characters discussing the story problem or planning a difficult course of action fraught with potential risk while outside a colossal storm is raging. In a Koontz story, it’s never a mild patter of raindrops on the window glass. Instead, it’s nearly gale force, with the wind howling and gusting, torrents of rain pouring down so that visibility is poor, and lightning crashing violently. It makes readers worry about the characters more because solving their story problem is going to be severely hampered by the intense weather.

In the Koontz novel, SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT, the heroine, her child, and her friend are trying to flee the villains in a prolonged chase. They’re traveling on foot cross country in deep snow. The tall drifts and the cold take their toll physically on the protagonist, making readers worry more about whether she can survive and save her child’s life.

Beyond these simple applications of using weather as both a mood-setter and a physical hindrance, a far more subtle example of atmosphere used as pressure can be found in Agatha Christie’s superb novel, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

In this story, a group of ten individuals is tricked into spending the weekend on a remote, isolated island accessible only by boat. One by one, the guests are dropped off. They are surprised to find their host is absent. Other than a pair of servants to serve them dinner, they’re alone on the island, unable to leave until the boat returns. The house is a rambling, gloomy place full of awkward passages. The beach is bleak. There’s no phone service or TV, and even electricity is iffy at times, supplied by a generator. Dinner is so-so, and it’s not exactly a hospitable place. Then the guests–none of whom know each other–start to be murdered systematically, one by one. As their fear and mutual distrust grow, the atmosphere of this grim setting adds to the pressure. They’re trapped, with nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. And their desperation contributes to the dark, edgy mood even more.

When you’re creating ambiance, ask yourself if
1) it fits the genre of your story;

2) it’s in contrast to your protagonist’s expectations (for example, the guests in the Christie story arrive happy, expecting to have a fun weekend);

3) it can contribute toward making the story problem harder to solve.

Put it to work for you in crafting a stronger, more compelling story.

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Setting the Mood

Mood … atmosphere … ambiance. Whatever you call it, this aspect of writing fiction is yet another means of connecting with reader emotions.

And when you touch reader emotions, you bring your stories to life.

We instinctively understand this, whether as a writer or a reader. Hollywood relies on it via lighting, camera angles, set design, and soundtrack. When you attended your first childhood sleepover, and sat clustered around the person telling a ghost story in a dark room with a flashlight shining on her face, you were positioned into the mood for fright and shivers.

Edgar Allen Poe didn’t invent the atmospheric story, but he sure put it on the map and gave writers a blueprint for how it should be done: boldly and with gusto.

Or, to phrase this another way, if you’re going to be timid about establishing mood in your story, don’t bother.

All stories need it. Each genre draws on different word choices to accomplish it.

Horror and urban fantasy require descriptive passages filled with shadowy streets; unlit alleys; abandoned warehouses; gloomy parking garages; broken pavement; decrepit, empty buildings; the wind blowing pieces of trash against a rusting chain link fence; the creaking sway of an ancient tree on a moonless night.

Romance requires description of the charming cottage at the end of the lane; rose petals floating in a bathtub filled with perfumed salts and oils; the soft glow of candlelight; moonlit strolls on the beach; snowflakes drifting down gently during a sleigh ride in the Vermont countryside; crackling fires on the hearth; a ballroom filled with couples waltzing the night away.

Mysteries and crime stories stand on imagery drawn from secretive passages; mysterious messages and clues; the chalked outline of a body on the pavement; tawdry motel rooms; smoky bars; isolated villages; unfriendly people peering out past the safety chain on their doors; dark streets littered by homeless winos; drug dealers watching from doorways; the metallic tang of blood; cheap offices and PI paperwork; stakeouts and greasy fast food; the faded letter hidden in a trinket box; the pornography pictures taped beneath a drawer in a blackmailer’s bedroom; that sense of being trapped or watched.

Westerns require the openness of the old West; the sense of a lonely individual standing bravely against the wilderness; the small, primitive towns with dusty streets; the ring of spurs with every bootstep; the bawling of cattle; the dust and danger of a cattle drive; the heat and relentless sun; thirst alleviated by a few sips of tepid water in a canteen dangling from the saddlehorn; the smell of horses and leather.

Traditional fantasy relies heavily on pseudo-medieval tropes, including cold, drafty castles; almost impenetrable forests; pomp and pageantry; ale-houses; falconry and stag-hunting; herbs hanging to dry from the rafters; poisons lined in crude pottery flasks on shelves; bubbling cauldrons; alchemists muttering incantations over parchment inscribed with arcane symbols; swords, shields, and armor; the hot breath of a sleeping dragon.

Of course, those are the most obvious factors in these particular genres. In some cases, they’ve been worn thin by over-use, and yet readers still respond to such imagery. And writers temper the mood depending on whether a story is serious or comedic.

To spark the mood for readers, a writer has to feel it first. Have you ever tried creating a mood board? That’s a term used by interior decorators and designers, where they assemble a collage of fabric swatches and paint chips in selected colors, maybe a sample of wood stain, and a photo or sketch of a chair leg or room layout.

Writers can also benefit from creating mood boards. It can be as simple as drawing a map of a fantasy kingdom so you can remember where the mountains and river are. Romance writers have often clipped photos of models or magazine spreads of beautifully decorated rooms to represent their characters and/or the hero’s bachelor pad.

With today’s computer technology, you can pin the images you like into a virtual mood board. Even if you aren’t sure what to include–after all, how can you pin or clip images of ghosts, for example?–give it a try. Maybe a particular paint chip of dark purple makes you think of a brooding figure materializing over the heroine as she sleeps. Use it!

Your finished board may not look like much to anyone but yourself, but as long as it sparks your creativity in some way, that helps YOU. Which is the whole point of this exercise.

A few years ago, I wanted to write a series of books set in a small, invented community. With that in mind, I decided to “collect” pictures of old houses. So whenever I drove through a town, I’d detour into the historic district and snap photos of both stately and humble homes. My intention was to print them and glue them to posterboard, thereby making “streets” of houses. (This was before Pinterest, by the way.) I don’t know how many pictures of Victorians, 1920s Tudors, bungalows, and Spanish Revivals are on my camera’s memory cards.

Did I ever make the collage? Nope. But it didn’t matter. The concept of that project and the photos I shot were enough to keep my imagination cooking. I could see the town in my mind’s eye, and that’s what truly mattered.

For my fantasy novel THE PEARLS, I felt the hero-villain Shadrael’s armor and weaponry were an important aspect of his character design. His gear wasn’t conventional, so I spent an afternoon drawing war axes and daggers in a sketchpad. I’m no artist, but sketching helped me refine the details into something plausible. (For example, my initial idea would have beaned him between the eyes if he’d tried to use it!) As a result of having worked through the details, when I was writing I could describe the weapons with authority and authenticity.

You see, vagueness won’t carry you far in fiction.

Presently, I’m working on a story set in Greece. I’ve been there, and I remember the trip well. But my visit happened several years ago, and some details have faded in my mind. Last week, when I came across a Google image of a Greek island, it reinforced and jogged my memory. So helpful!

A story without mood is cake without icing. You can still enjoy it, but wouldn’t it be better with?

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New from Sean Dalton

After months and weeks of slog through proofreading to correct OCR errors, #3 in my old science fiction SPACEHAWKS series is finally going live on Kindle. BEYOND THE VOID deals with a nasty alien race set to invade Earth, kill all humans, and inhabit our planet’s oceans. Commander Kelly’s special operations team takes on the alien ship with its robot crew and alien masters in typical Hawks style.

If I may be allowed to display just a little pride, I’m particularly fond of this book’s new cover. Crossed fingers that SPACEHAWKS fans will like it, too.

Meanwhile, time to start proofing #4.

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Love and Smother

How long have you known your characters in your current writing project?

Did you create them recently? Or have they been your companions for a very long time?

Perhaps a character came to you in the long distance of your memory and inspired you to build a story for him or her. Since then, have you created an entire world for this character to inhabit? And if so, how long have you been living there? A few months? Or several years?

If you and this character have been cohabiting for YEARS, then it’s time to re-evaluate the situation by asking yourself some questions:

a) Why are you still writing about this same character?

If it’s because you’re writing a series, fine. Good for you.

If it’s because you’re still writing the countless draft of the same manuscript that you began in 1983, then it’s time to try something new.

b) What about this character fascinates you so much?

If the character is nuanced, multi-dimensional, complex, fascinating, and dynamic, fine. If you have such a character and your story is stuck, chances are you haven’t developed sufficient writing skills worthy of your creation.

However, if you’re clinging to this character from a psychological or emotional need only, then it’s time to date a new protagonist.

c) Is this character based on a real person?

If you’ve gleaned a few personality traits from various people you know and combined them into one invented individual, okay.

If you’ve based this character solely on one real person or someone that experienced the plot events you’re trying to write about, then you’re going to be hindered or inhibited from writing your story to its best dramatic potential.

d) When a writing coach gives you constructive criticism about changing this character, do you become defensive or angry?

If you’re acting like a mama bear defending her cub, that hostility is a sure indication that you’ve grown too attached to the character, and the character is now smothering your creativity. It’s possible to become rooted in stone, too rigid to accept change.

It can be hard to break up with a protagonist you’ve cherished too long. Perhaps this imaginary individual was part of your first experience with creative inspiration. Perhaps this imaginary individual led you to becoming a writer.

You don’t have to stop cherishing this character in order to move on. You aren’t going to be a failure because you’ve never satisfactorily written this character’s story. You aren’t betraying this character just because you create another one.

You aren’t killing the character or destroying the character in any way. But you shouldn’t let your fascination with him or her impede your progress or growth as a writer.

When we become too enamored of a character yet we can’t complete that person’s story, we become stalled in a creative corner. In such cases, we don’t always realize what’s happened. We aren’t always aware that we’ve constructed a protective shield over the character, a shield that prevents us from altering the character’s behavior or even the plot.

Such a situation becomes a quagmire, especially if the character is based on a real person. You’re unwilling to change the character because that wouldn’t be what she’s really like, and yet until or unless you do, the story will remain stuck.

Keep in mind that real life and fiction aren’t the same thing. Fiction is art. It can mirror reality. It can replicate reality. But it’s never identical to reality or a true duplication of it. Things that happen in the real world may seem completely unbelievable on the page.

Solutions:
1) Remember that you’re the author. You’re in charge. You can create or delete a character. The character never controls you.

2) Set the character and your stalled story aside. If you feel as though you’re abandoning it, think of this move as a temporary shift to a new idea.

3) Divide your weekly writing time equally between the old character and plot and the new ones. For example, work on old story Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and new story on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Gradually apportion more days to the new story.

4) Even if you don’t much care for a new protagonist, play fair and give this character a chance. Devise personality traits, a background, tags of appearance and behavior, goals, and true nature. If it feels awkward, reassure yourself that you’re conducting drill exercises.

Practicing and experimenting with “temporary” characters is a better way to hone your craft anyway. Your cherished character isn’t threatened, and you don’t have to feel defensive.

5) Create one new protagonist a week. Sooner or later, you’ll invent one that ignites a spark of interest inside you. Write a short story featuring that protagonist.

6) If you still like the protagonist after completing a short story, then ask yourself if you could expand that story into a novel.

You will be on your way toward new growth as a writer.

You won’t feel defensive and threatened.

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Meanwhile …

In a week of interruptions and work overload, my blog post is still in rough draft. Therefore, I wanted to share a post from Philip Athans’s blog about the misuse of certain words we often reach for to convey excitement and then end up achieving anything but that.

Enjoy!

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In Search of a Giant

Some days, you think your morning is going to be yet another ordinary experience, and then–from the blue, bam!–a sentence rocks your world.

Today before breakfast I was reading the October issue of English Home Magazine because
1) They still have content, unlike all too many American magazines;
2) They still serve up huge, luscious photography instead of tiny, thumb-print sized pics increasingly prevalent in American magazines;
3) They still seem to believe their readers possess intelligence and education;
4) They are MAGAZINES, not imitators of blogs;
5) They usually ignite my imagination in some unexpected, serendipitous way.

While reading the Mrs. Minerva column–one of my favorite features within English Home, incidentally–I came across a nugget of sheer creative gold. It was a sentence casually suggesting that parents take their children to see St. Michael’s Mount. There, the author mentioned, you pause on the heart-shaped stone in the causeway to listen to the giant’s heart beating beneath the sea.

Whoosh! My imagination caught fire. I gobbled my breakfast, raced to work on my usual commute, fired off my usual pre-lecture emails faster than usual, and as soon as my first class ended, I switched on Google to run a search.

St. Michael’s Mount is located in Cornwall. The National Trust’s Website calls it “the jewel in Cornwall’s crown.” The Mount is a hill rising out of the sea just off the shoreline. The castle atop it dates back to the 14th century, although the site was an important port as long ago as the Iron Age and a chapel was built on the Mount in the 11th century. Also in the 11th century, a tsunami flooded the Cornish shore with the sea engulfing woodlands and creating the present-day configuration of the island.

History is always fascinating to me, and although normally that alone would set my heart beating a little quicker, today it was the giant I wanted, the legend. Not tsunamis or granite outcroppings.

Turns out, this is where the legend of Jack the Giant Killer started. A giant named Cormoran lived on the Mount. Every day or so, when the tide ran out, Cormoran would wade ashore from the island and steal cows and sheep from the local fields. One night, while Cormoran slept, a boy named Jack rowed out to the island and dug a deep pit on one side of the Mount. At dawn, he blew his horn and woke up Cormoran. As the giant ran down the hillside, the rising sun dazzled him. He failed to see Jack or the pit and fell in or was bludgeoned in, never to trouble the village again. In gratitude, the village gave Jack a sword and belt, the latter embroidered with
“This is the valiant Cornishman
Who slew the Giant Cormoran”

When people ask me how I develop ideas into plots, this kind of thing is often how I start. A snippet, a fragment, a phrase comes my way and ignites my imagination.

Now, having spent my spare moments today reading the ancient nursery rhyme about Jack the Giant Killer and gleaning through several variations of the legend I summarized above, I have no intention of recreating the legend in some fantasy novel. Nor do I want to write it as a deconstructed fairy tale. Charles de Lint has already done a wonderful job of that with his Canadian story of a girl called Jack and boggarts who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

I’m less interested in the actual legend now that I’ve read it, and more intrigued by that image of a child pausing partway to the castle and listening to the shifting restless waves for a giant’s heartbeat.

The online site Ancestry.com says there’s a stone shaped like a heart lying on the path above the well. Generations of children have been told to put their hand on their heart so they can feel the giant’s heart beating. Uh, duh, I guess they will.

Somehow, I like the image of the child pausing on the causeway better.

Where will I go with that? I don’t know as yet.

Do I have a plot? Not yet. None of this is even a premise.

What grabs me is the innocence and wonder within a young child–one not yet spoiled by electronic toys and the endless pulses, beats, and yammer of our modern age. Modern parents cram young children’s lives with gadgets that fill in colors on a screen as the little one simply pushes buttons. No matter what the experts and toy designers may say, I think that such widgets and whizzbang boopity-boop on batteries succeed only in suppressing imagination.

But here is a little girl or a little boy, not yet caught by the ennui of modern childhood. A child clutching an adult hand, stopping obediently to listen. Can’t you see her face, eyes slightly unfocused in concentration before they suddenly flare in wonder? The child has heard it, whether that “it” is an actual sound or one born of sheer imagination. It doesn’t matter because in that instant, the child believes. And that, my fellow writers, is the enchantment.

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Lost in Portents

Much like the ancient Romans, I tend to believe in signs and oracles. Not, mind you, to the point of throwing sacred grain to the sacred chickens and deciding whether I should proceed based on whether said chickens peck at the grain or refuse to eat. Nor have I studied the entrails of a sacrificed lamb in order to determine my destiny.

But some days are filled with so much frustration and some tasks meet so many obstacles and interruptions that I do wonder, Should I step back and rethink this?

This afternoon I finally typed my way to the ending of a plot synopsis despite phone interruptions and the arrival of the lawn guy. Of course, there are times when I’m on a deadline. Then I don’t answer the phone and I ignore the lawn guy. This, however, was not such a day.

Despite everything, though, I finished the synopsis on time. I was pleased. Still, my aging computer is wobbling enough to concern me. I debated whether to print out the synopsis and sample chapters or save a backup somewhere. I was tired. It was the end of a long day. Although I consider a hard copy the safest means of backing up, I didn’t want to wait for the equally elderly printer to wheeze out 47 pages. And I didn’t want to walk to the opposite end of the house and back to fetch a thumb drive. (Because why would I keep a backup thumb drive sitting next to my computer?) And before you start firing suggestions my way, let me state that I don’t use The Cloud nor did I want to email this manuscript to my day-job computer in this particular instance.

A few months ago, I yielded to the urging of well-intentioned friends and purchased an external hard drive. This afternoon, I thought, why not grab it and back everything up? I’ve been meaning to do this anyway. How long could it take?

Five hours later, I have yielded by copying the file to my thumb drive. I just finished printing out a hard copy from the slow but still faithful printer.

The hard drive–useless, mysterious thing that it is–has been returned to the shelf near my desk. I failed to back up anything onto this sleek black box. I may or may not have installed it. There’s a new icon on my desktop screen, which makes me believe it might be there. But having found myself in some kind of endless Groundhog Day loop of installing, waiting, installing, waiting, choosing my installation language, waiting, installing, waiting, choosing my installation language, waiting, etc., I’m not sure what, if anything, was accomplished. Restarting the computer to finish installation locked up the old machine. Which meant crawling beneath my desk and systematically unplugging each cord from the battery backup until I finally turned off the desktop.

During these sorts of rescue missions, I always feel like someone trying to perform brain surgery with a paring knife.

With the computer unlocked and operational again, I searched around for instructions. A file titled “Quick Reference Guide” seemed to be the ticket. When in doubt, read directions. Right? Yes!

Except that in this case, the Quick Reference Guide spent three pages in English informing me that the hard drive has a warranty that expires in two years. End of information. The rest of the guide repeats this message in perhaps a dozen other languages. Clearly the reference guide will never assist me in figuring out how to transfer a file from my Word document to this particular external hard drive, let alone open anything.

At that point, I gave up. I started printing out my file. And I fetched the thumb drive, copying the file onto it in a few seconds. Easy-peasy. Had I gone ahead at the end of my writing session, I would have enjoyed peace of mind all evening with the task done quickly and efficiently instead of tearing out my hair attempting to work an unworkable piece of equipment clearly not designed for non-androidbrain users such as myself.

Of course, other hindrances slowed the process. Other programs were lurking in cyberspace, waiting to pounce on anyone trying to install something new. Adobe had a new version of Flash for me. Then Java wanted to download its 71st update. Don’t you think there’s something a bit alarming about that number?

Now, as I’m typing this post, the computer cursor is moving like sludge. I’m typing blind with the letters crawling across my screen in a three-second lag. Either all this installation/updating has done something harmful like infect my computer with a virus, or a new problem has arisen.

At times like these, as much as I appreciate how modern technology has made my job as a writer easier in so many ways, I’m ready to throw in the towel and go back to writing manuscripts by hand.

But then I guess writer’s cramp and tendonitis would plague me.

(The lag has increased to maybe ten seconds or more. All the signs and portents are shouting, “Stop writing. Put all technology away. Shut down and give up for the day.”)

Some days, writing in stone with a hammer and chisel has to seem easier.

As the Brits would say, I’m having a bit of a moan. And I suppose I will have to give up, give in, and give my credit card yet more usage as I go purchase the different brand of external hard drive that I should have bought in the first place.

P.S. I just found an obscure button that took me back to “classic mode” in Word Press. Lo and behold, no more sludge typing! The problem in the typing lag belongs to Word Press and not my creaking computer equipment.

It’s a relief to remember that occasionally the fault does not lie with this operator.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that come tomorrow the portents for writing will be more favorable.

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