Word by Word

Practical insights for writers

NaNoWriMo prep: consider your story’s overall atmosphere

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Oct• 31•18

Yesterday there was a break in the rains and I managed more yard clean-up. I tossed out two large hanging plants with relief since I started watering them in May. Still more plants to care for, but they’re blooming away.

I want to recommend another starting place for fiction: atmosphere. Now, I’m not suggesting you skip plotting or structure, I’m suggesting you plan for an overall tone and mood from the get-go. I’ve rarely given this advice for a first draft before, but then I started reading Dean Koontz’ Jane Hawk series. And I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why the novels are bestsellers, what works and what doesn’t quite work.

In this thriller series, Jane Hawk, a rogue FBI agent, takes on government agencies including the FBI and a cabal of villains with a deadly conspiracy. The stories are dark, brutal, and scary.  As you read along, you feel prickly and practically queasy because  evil is everywhere.  And the more you read, the more you realize how the author is also inserting real-life horrors into the mix. Because we’re living them in contemporary America.

Why use atmosphere in your first draft?

  • Because it will affect your mood and approach to your story.
  • It will make you focus on creating unease–a necessary ingredient not always considered in early drafts.
  • Unease contributes to writing a page-turner.
  • Atmosphere underlines themes–even if you don’t have your themes nailed down yet.
  • It will also make revising easier once November ends.

While Jane Hawk spends a lot of time driving across the country searching for answers, a lot of  the series is set in California. Now California isn’t exactly Transylvania in the dead of winter, right?  But Koontz is a writer’s writer, and he makes most settings spooksville and dangerous. If Jane reaches a haven or safety, it’s always a look-over-your-shoulder situation and she needs to move on, not rest. And she never, ever relaxes. Too much is on the line, including the safety of her beloved 5-year-old Travis.

The story is set in the near-future and the country is sliding into chaos and lawlessness.  It opens with deadly terrorism attack in Pennsylvania as the backdrop and citizens countrywide are uneasy and fearful. Here’s a typical setting description as she’s driving.

When the wipers swept the blearing stain from the windshield, she saw the nearby Pacific, storm-lashed and misted, rolling toward the shore less like water and more like a sea of gray smoke pouring off the fires of a nuclear holocaust. The Silent Corner

Throughout the series weather is used in scene after scene, often as bookends. Jane is off the grid so uses public libraries to find information online.   From The Silent Corner before she visits a library: Still, the storm had not broken. The sky over San Diego loomed heavy with midday dark, as if all the water weight and potential thunder stored over distant Alpine had in the last few hours slid unspent toward the city, to add pressure to the coastal deluge that was coming. Sometimes both weather and history broke far too slowly for those who were impatient for what came next.

In the park adjacent to the library, following a winding path, she saw ahead a fountain surrounded by a reflecting pool, and she walked to it and sat on one of the benches facing the water that flowered up in numerous thin streams, petaling the air with silver droplets.

This place sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And don’t you wish you’d come up with petaling the air with silver droplets? In case you’re imagining the park as a place or peace or safety, forget about it. Because in fiction it really works to stage danger in benign or lovely settings.

Let’s check out the same park later when Jane is about to be  attacked and run for her life. On the flanking streets to the north and south, traffic passed: grumble of engines, swish of tires, hiss of air brakes, rattle of a loosely-fitted manhole cover, the traffic noise seemed curiously muffled, as if the park were encased with insulated dual-pane glass.

The air remained under pressure, the sky full of iron-dark mountains that would soon collapse in a deluge, the city expectant, the windows of buildings shimmering with light that normally would be faded by the sun at this hour, drivers switching on headlights, the vehicles gliding through the faux dusk like submersibles following undersea lanes.

Jane had taken only a few steps from the fountain when she detected a buzz like swarming wasps. At first it seemed to come from above her, and then from behind, but when she turned in a circle and faced again the grove of palms toward which she had been moving, she saw the source hovering twenty feet away: drones.

Did you notice how the most important word is place at the end of the paragraph? Emulate this. Notice the choice of language: hiss, deluge, collapse, faux dusk, loomed, thunder, grumble, rattle. These words stir reader’s emotions.

And you know what? The big reason this is such a gripping and terrifying series is because it seems so possible. Climate change, domestic terrorism, Russian conspiracies, bombs being sent to presidential critics, Jewish worshippers gunned down in their beloved synagogue–you name it, as a country we’re scared and we should be.

Stay tuned: Don’t be afraid of potent backstory (more on the Jane Hawk series)

Keep writing, Keep dreaming, Have heart

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