Writer Wednesday: Atmosphere with Jedediah Berry

Jedediah Berry is the author of The Manual of Detection, which was so wonderfully drenched in a rain-soaked atmosphere that I asked him to host a discussion on this elusive subject. How do you give an atmosphere to a novel? How do you tackle something so ethereal? Jedediah looks to a couple masters of fiction before offering his own excerpt. He is also the editor for Small Beer Press, so he is able to speak as both editor and writer.

~*~

Once a word sees regular use in both reviews of fiction and reviews of restaurants, it ought to be approached with a degree of caution. What exactly do we mean by atmosphere? It has something to do with the setting, doesn’t it? It’s hiding in the details, surely, just waiting to be summoned up by the right arrangement of objects, colors, gestures.

But we have to make sure not to confuse atmosphere with decor. The objects in the room, whether they serve to orient us in time and place or to give us a sense of the characters inhabiting a story, do not necessarily create atmosphere, which is invisible or nearly so. Atmosphere lacks substance, but you can always almost feel it. It gets into everything, the characters breathe it, the world is made of it. So atmosphere isn’t the setting itself, nor is it set dressing. Rather, it inhabits and haunts the scene.

The effects that generate atmosphere are perhaps more easy to identify in film than they are in fiction. Lighting is used to draw the eye to certain details—or to cloak them in shadow. Countless filters and optical tricks can suffuse the frame with mood. And music, of course, can accomplish even more than imagery. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wished that my readers would hear a particular song while reading my work.

But as lowly writers of fiction, all we have are words—and words will be enough. Consider this passage from The Big Sleep. Here, Philip Marlowe enters a greenhouse to meet with his client, General Sternwood.

    The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket….
    The General half-closed his eyes. “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume is the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”
    I stared at him with my mouth open. The soft wet heat was like a pall around us. The old man nodded, as if his neck was afraid of the weight of his head. Then the butler came pushing back through the jungle with a teawagon, mixed me a brandy and soda, swathed the copper ice bucket with a damp napkin, and went away softly among the orchids. A door opened and shut behind the jungle.
    I sipped the drink. The old man licked his lips watching me, over and over again, drawing one lip slowly across the other with a funereal absorption, like an undertaker dry-washing his hands.

Raymond Chandler doesn’t miss any opportunities to lend this scene an air of oppression and menace. The quality of the light, the carefully chosen metaphors, the repeated evocation of heat and humidity: these details are here to do a specific kind of work, because the very substance of the book lives in them. Death, corruption, deceit, beauty, decay: they’re all present in this greenhouse, right in the opening pages of a novel that will explore those themes in depth.

Which is key, maybe, to how atmosphere works in fiction. If a detail doesn’t impart something about the driving forces of the work, then they’re only details. We can see this same effect, in concise form, in the opening sentence of William Gibson’s Neuromancer:

    The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Therein lies the difference between the fiction writer and the restauranteur. You can feel that charge in the air, that sense of building dread. And no wonder the word “atmospheric” is used so often to describe hardboiled and noir fiction. In those genres of writing, atmosphere is vital to the whole enterprise, and I can’t help but wonder if the word has become synonymous with the mood particular to the best works of that kind.

I’ve been asked to pick a passage from my own novel, The Manual of Detection, which exhibits some of these qualities. So, foolish though it seems to try to follow Chandler and Gibson (but then, what choice do I have?), I’ll close with this section, in which my file clerk turned amateur sleuth, Charles Unwin, visits the Municipal Museum of his city. He’s in search of Travis Sivart, a legendary detective who’s gone missing. It’s here that Unwin crosses the line between the safety of his everyday world and into the more mysterious and dangerous world that Sivart has long inhabited. That shift, I hope, is evident in the mood of the thing.

    Unwin pedaled north along the dripping, shadowed expanse of City Park. There were fewer cars on the street now, but twice he had to ride up onto the sidewalk to pass horse-drawn carriages, and a peanut vendor swore at him as he swerved too close to his umbrella-topped stand. By the time Unwin arrived at the Municipal Museum, his socks were completely soaked again. He hopped off his bicycle and chained it to a lamppost, stepping away just in time to avoid the spray of filthy water raised by the tires of a passing bus.
    The fountains to either side of the museum entrance were shut off, but rainwater had overflowed the reservoirs and was pouring across the sidewalk to the gutter. The place had a cursed and weary look about it—built, Unwin imagined, not to welcome visitors, but to keep secrets hidden from them. He fought the urge to turn around and go home. With every step he took, the report he would have to write explaining his actions grew in size. But if he were ever going to get his old job back, he would have to find Sivart, and this was where Sivart had gone.
    Unwin angled his umbrella against a fierce damp wind, climbed the broad steps, and passed alone through the revolving doors of the museum.
    Light from the windowed dome of the Great Hall shone dimly over the information booth, the ticket tables, the broad-leafed potted plants flanking each gallery entrance. He followed the sound of clinking flatware to the museum café.
    Three men were hunched over the lunch counter, eating in silence. All but one of the dozen or so tables in the room were unoccupied. Near the back of the room, a man with a pointed blond beard was working on a portable typewriter. He typed quickly, humming to himself whenever he had to stop and think.
    Unwin went to the counter and ordered a turkey and cheese on rye, his Wednesday sandwich. The three men remained intent on their lunches, eating their soup with care. When Unwin’s food came, he took it to a table near the man with the blond beard. He set his hat upside-down next to his plate and put his briefcase on the floor.
    The man’s stiff beard bobbed while he worked—he was silently mouthing the words as he typed them. Unwin could see the top of the page curl upward, and he glimpsed the phrases eats lunch same time everyday and rarely speaks to workfellows. Before he could read more, the man glanced over his shoulder at him, righted the page, and frowned so that his beard stuck straight out from his face. Then he returned his attention to his typewriter.
    Despite all that Unwin had read of detective work, he had no idea how to proceed with this investigation. Who had Sivart met with, and what had transpired between them? What good did it do to have come here now? The trail might already have gone cold, as Sivart would have put it.
    Unwin opened his briefcase. He had sworn not to read The Manual of Detection, but he knew he would at least have to skim it if he were going to play at being a detective. He told himself he would read only enough to help him along to the first break in the case. That would come soon, he thought, if he only knew how to begin.
    He turned the book over in his hands. The edges of the cloth were worn from use. It’s saved my life more than once, Detective Pith had said to him. But Unwin had never even heard of the book, so he was sure the Agency did not wish for non-employees to learn of its existence. Instead of setting the book on the table, he opened it in his lap.

~*~

Please join us in the discussion! For easier reading, please keep comments  and excerpts in separate posts, and limit any excerpts to 300 words or so. Jedediah will be joining us in the late afternoon, so let’s accumulate some questions for him.


52 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: Atmosphere with Jedediah Berry”

  1. My most atmospheric effort to date is my work-in-progress, a time travel historical. In this scene, Mike is walking around St. Augustine in the 20s while his sister, Adele, is at a hotel. He still feels like a fish-out-of-water, but he is beginning to adjust.

    Mike left Adele sleeping in the hotel room the next morning and wandered around the town square. He found himself both hating and loving being here. He hated the “Whites Only” signs above certain cafes and shops. He loved it for the slower pace.

    A gang of spike-wielding boys chasing a truck had him momentarily alarmed until he saw the name on the side of the truck: Druthers Co. Ice. They chased it down as it rounded a corner, and then jumped on the back. For a moment, all he could see were legs and rumps. Then, one by one, they jumped off and compared the sizes of their dripping chunks of ice. Mike realized that the spikes were ice picks.

    Just ahead of him, a housewife opened the door and murmured “good morning” while she grabbed a couple of bottles of milk off her front step. He walked by a man attempting to crank-start a car that looked old even for this era. Passing gentlemen tipped their hats–whatever they had, be it old derbies, cowboy hats, fedoras, or other hats he knew nothing about. They eyed him as they said good morning, and his hatless head started to feel naked. When he saw an open store ahead of him, he decided to go in. The name of the store, F. W. Woolworth Co., looked familiar.

    He found himself something that looked like a drug store. He wandered up and down aisles, his eyes leaping with fascination from one object to another. Toward the back of the store, he found inexpensive men’s clothing. He picked out a fedora, took it to the counter, and paid for it. It was $3.50.

    He settled it on its head as he walked out the door, as he had seen men do, and he resumed his stroll. He started wandering up and down random streets. It was impossible to get lost for long. Too far north, and you hit the trolley line. Too far south, and you reached a golf course. Too far east and west, you hit water, as a river ran west of town. He wandered for hours, taking it all in, wondering if Adele would worry, and smiling when the thought hit him that she would have surely called his cell phone by now.

    Her company was never onerous, but he felt freer than he had felt since he was a boy.

    (I went a little over the word count, but I wanted to include that last line.)

    1. Thanks for bringing more for us to look at, Tia! It’s a canny move on your part to have him think of the cell phone toward the end of this passage. His body’s in one world, but clearly his mind is still catching up. Where did you go for your period details for this?

      1. Actually, a lot of it is memories of first-hand accounts from my grandmother, who was a young lady in the 20s. She told me the story about chasing ice trucks, looking for stray chunks of ice. From her I got stories about iceboxes, washing boards–she actually still had an old washboard–sugar cubes, corsets, and tons of other stuff. She was born in 1895 and I had the oldest grandmother of anyone I knew.

        Plus, I am able to get a surprising amount of detail from photographs, particularly the shorpy.com photo archive. They have high-res pictures that clearly show critical details like prices in shop windows, telephone kiosks, the way offices are set up, the way stores were set up, wiring, hospital wards, city streets, family rooms, nurseries–you name it. I have been scouring their archive a couple of years now, scrutinizing every detail.

        The description of Woolworth’s comes from historical accounts that show Woolworth’s was the first to have browsable aisles. I also saw a picture on shorpy. Most stores–and all the other stores in my story–had everything behind a counter, accessible only by a clerk.

        Thanks. I’m really enjoying writing this story.

        1. Great that you’ve been able to use that material. I recently saw Walter Mosley on a panel, and he suggested the idea that our own lifetimes start many years before we’re born: all those stories and details from our families and friends are as much a part of us as any of our personal experiences.

    2. That’s really cool that you got some of the details first hand. 🙂 I love the detail about the ice truck -but I noticed that it seems like Mike stopped worrying about the spike-welding boys as soon as he saw the name on the side of the truck, but didn’t realize what they held was ice-picks until a couple sentences after he lost his concern. (I might just be incredibly nit-picky, though.)

  2. I love Neuromancer’s opening line! What an unexpected metaphor.

    So (putting my writer’s hat on), some of the elements that contribute to atmosphere include: metaphor (the more original the better), sensory details that add to the effect you want to convey, carefully chosen verbs (“The wind knifed into her” conveys a much different atmosphere than “The wind teased her hair”)… what else?

    I also find that many times atmosphere is colored by the POV character’s state of mind. A frightened character pushing through a carnival crowd might see grins as leers, people in his way as malicious obstructions, laughter as mocking jibes, etc.

    I’ll see if I can find an excerpt to post up later today. This is a fun topic.

    1. Rabia, I think this is an important point about how a character’s frame of mind will color the scene. Varies depending on point of view—a first person or close third person narrator will inevitably have more opportunities for this. Hemingway was famous for exteriorizing a character’s inner life, making it part of the physical world. When it works, it can have a powerful effect.

      And you’re right about metaphor, of course. Chandler’s metaphors in this section are so overt they probably shouldn’t work (“fingers of dead men”!) and yet they do, maybe because we know that Marlowe has seen what those dead fingers look like. So the metaphor isn’t plucked out of the ether, but rather comes from a character’s experience.

      All of which raises an interesting question. I’d been thinking of atmosphere as an exterior thing, but maybe it has as much to do with the interior lives of the characters as it does with the setting?

      1. ’d been thinking of atmosphere as an exterior thing, but maybe it has as much to do with the interior lives of the characters as it does with the setting?

        I’d say yes. Somehow I never mind being the last person in the house to turn in at night *unless* I’ve been up reading a murder mystery. Funny (not) how spooky the darkness is then, how menacing each creak. *shudder*

        1. I hear that. Just a few weeks ago, after I’d been listening to the audiobook of The Turn of the Screw, I was walking down a dark hallway when a hat fell off a bookshelf and landed on my shoulder. I’m sure you can imagine the result.

          1. Oh yes. Last time I stayed up late reading a mystery about a serial killer, I had to wake up my poor husband to accompany me to the bathroom so I could brush my teeth. The one time I attempted to go by myself, a few creaks from the settling house sent me scurrying back to safety!

      2. {tilt head thoughtfully} I think you’re right about atmosphere having much to do with the interior lives of characters. It isn’t just setting; you can have a detailed setting with minimal atmosphere. It isn’t just characters, either. It’s something separate. {Smile}

        Maybe atmosphere is really how the characters think of and respond to the setting? {pause} No… even that’s not a complete definition. I think that Chandler quote didn’t create quite the same atmosphere for me as it did for you. So the reader has to be in there, too. This will require more thought. {Smile}

        Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  3. Hi everyone! 🙂 I’m afraid Manual of Detection is still on my TBR list. Its interesting to me that your example, Berry, and yours, Tia, both have such a strong sense of the past. Setting is such a huge part of atmosphere. I like what you said, Rabia, about POV coloring atmosphere. Whether the story is in first or third person has a huge affect, too. I find when I write in third person, I’ll go more into painting the details and can get some pretty spooky effects, but most of my first-person narrators are so blunt and outspoken that when I try to build atmosphere, they sneer about how their not superstitious. (I do realize that not all atmospheric writing is spooky, but since I write what I term Gothic Fantasy (has nothing to do with the Goth movement. I just like stories about women in peril.)) trying for the occasional terrors of doom kinda go with the territory. 🙂

    1. I’m curious to know if what you’re describing shifts as the story progresses, Chicory. Do your first-person narrators change their tunes as they encounter more of those supernatural elements?

    2. I think of atmosphere is the mood of the novel, whether cheerful, or moody, or sepia-colored because its in the past. I wrote a short story about the future of petroleum, and I used metaphors from cars (“my anger revved”) and I tried for a mood that I thought of as slightly dusty and greasy. Although I never use those words to describe the mood, I tried to make the story itself seem to smell oily, like an old motor. And I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all!

      1. (Still getting the hang of using the reply button.) I love your description of atmosphere. It makes perfect sense to me. (My dad is really into photography, which might be why I can picture what you’re talking about so clearly.) Maybe if I thought of atmosphere that way instead of just in the `dark misty moors’ sense I’d be less worried about overly-blunt narrators.

      2. That’s a good way to look at it, Tia. I do, however, think that different places within the novel have their own atmosphere. In one of my books, the action occurs in four different city-states and I tried to establish each city’s distinctive mood.

      3. I think when we use the word atmosphere, we’re definitely talking about something mutable which can be adapted to different circumstances and moods. I can’t help but think of it as music: a kind of accompaniment that doesn’t just accompany, because it’s woven into the writing.

        1. Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is definitely the theme song for my Jane Austen-inspired spy fantasy!

      4. Oh, I *love* this idea of using car words for your petroleum story. That never would have occurred to me, but now I think I’m going to have to try something similar at some point.

        1. Thanks! That was where I first got the idea to use metaphors that are central to my characters. In my novella The Sevenfold Spell, I use a bunch of thread and spinning-based metaphors because my main character makes her living via a spinning wheel.

          I owe the idea to some author, but now I can’t remember who was the source of that inspiration.

  4. Jedediah it’s mostly a matter of writing characters who aren’t very introspective. (The heroine I’m thinking of in particular isn’t just big on denial -she thinks all problems can be solved with a good whack from a frying pan.) I’m trying for a more thoughtful heroine in my WIP, just as a change of pace.

  5. We’ve been thinking a lot about metaphor, so I’ll make a confession. I’m terrified of them. I think there are exactly two metaphors in The Manual of Detection. I used that example from Raymond Chandler partly because his metaphors stand out to me, and I’m always amazed by the fact that they work.

    So I think we’re in agreement that metaphor needs to be somehow inherent to the story or the characters if they’re going to contribute toward creating atmosphere. What other tools are at our disposal? Sometimes I think straightforward, concise descriptive imagery works best. Thoughts?

    1. There’s also voice, and humor. I’m thinking about Rex Stout’s narrator, Archie Goodwin. He conveys so much about the world he lives in with his attitude. 🙂

    2. The opening scene of THE MANUAL OF DETECTION struck me as particularly atmospheric. Will you forgive me for quoting from the excerpt available on your website?

      “Lest details be mistaken for clues, note that Mr. Charles Unwin, lifetime resident of this city, rode his bicycle to work every day, even when it was raining. He had contrived a method to keep his umbrella open while pedaling, by hooking the umbrella’s handle around the bicycle’s handlebar. This method made the bicycle less maneuverable and reduced the scope of Unwin’s vision, but if his daily schedule was to accommodate an unofficial trip to Central Terminal for unofficial reasons, then certain risks were to be expected.”

      I see several things here. First, we have a city where it rains so often that one must figure out how to use one’s umbrella while bicycling. Second, the use of language contributes a great deal to the atmosphere. It is slightly formal and archaic. I know right away not to expect breezy dialog, but that I should expect humor. Third, Unwin’s character is excessively concerned with getting wet, which is a great hint as to his meticulous character. And fourth, he’s taking this unofficial trip for unofficial reasons, so we can expect that me may not always do things that we expect. The last two may not seem to add to the atmosphere, but for me it did.

      1. Thanks, Tia. I like your analysis! There was also something I was trying to do with pacing here: to portray a world on the move, where things are happening and everyone is wakeful (in contrast, as you know, to some of what comes later…)

  6. Okay, here is an example of atmospheric from my WIP the Twelve Dancing Princesses retelling. This scene is Princess Blanche as a kid, just after she met the urchin Fortunato Hobbs. He’s taken her to the village the bandit/soldiers he lives with are currently occupying. (I tried to keep it within the word limit, but I’m a little dyslexic, and may have mis-counted. My apology if it’s too long.)

    Silhouettes were tossing bundles onto the bonfire. Heat made the air shimmer and turned everything still visible through the smoky haze a lurid crimson. One man crouched down, rolled his bundle over and-
    I gasped and jerked back behind the wall. The bundle was a body, and the man had been stripping it.
    -I have to get out of here- I thought, then my knees gave way. I slid down the wall and huddled there. i couldn’t stop shaking, couldn’t breathe. then Fortunato was in front of me. “Put this on.” He held out a coat, olive green and bloodstained. I turned away, gagging.
    “Fairy?”
    I covered my head with my arms, cowered away from him. Fortunato pried my arm down so he could se my face. So I couldn’t hide.
    “You brought me into a murderer’s den,” I whispered. “They’re burning the bodies.
    He let go abruptly. “It’s a war camp. What d’ you think happens to the dead? You’re gonna freeze just setting there.” He wrapped the bloody coat around my shoulders, and I was so numb with horror that I let him do it. A little of the fire’s warmth was still caught in the cloth- the heat of burning corpses.

    1. Aargh! Why do I find all my typos AFTER I hit the submit button? I was looking at my page while I typed instead of the screen. Sorry.

    2. This passage raises another idea: repeated use of certain words to generate an effect. I’m looking at you, “bonfire.” And you, “heat.” And your pal “smoky,” and your other pal “haze.” And some of you phrases, too, like “fire’s warmth” and “heat of burning corpses.” The persistence of the idea of heat throughout this passage gives an oppressive quality appropriate to the circumstances.

      1. I can also imagine the coppery smell of blood, especially when he wraps the cloak around her.

      2. Jedediah, the idea of repeating words, that kind of ties back to what you said about atmosphere being like music, doesn’t it?

        1. I wonder if we can take any lessons from poets when trying to convey atmosphere, and use techniques like alliteration and assonance, along with repetition and rhythm.

  7. I think when atmosphere is done right, it turns the setting almost into a character in its own right. I know the two aren’t interchangeable, but I tend to think atmosphere is vital to a sense of place. So I wonder if having a strong knowledge of one’s setting and consciously trying to treat it as a character in the story can result in strong atmosphere whether or not the writer is purposely trying to create atmosphere, if that makes sense.

    1. I’ve never thought about it that way, Raven, but I think you’re onto something. Maybe the equation could go something like: traits are to characters as atmosphere is to setting?

    2. It makes sense to me. In `The Art of Discworld’ Terry Pratchett mentions how useful having a map for Ank-Morpork was to him while writing `NightWatch’. `NightWatch’ really uses the city as a character and the book has a really strong atmosphere. The dark, wounded past is almost clauserphobic. The book gives you a whole new appreciation for how far the city’s come.

  8. I have to sign off for the evening, folks, but I’m really enjoying this conversation. I’ll check in tomorrow afternoon sometime, and if anyone has any other questions or ideas, I’ll have at ’em then!

  9. Here’s my excerpt, with a phobic character who just found herself in the midst of a crowd:

    Then came the people. Jhayni jumped as a sleeve brushed her arm, jumped again when a body pressed against hers for a brief second. She whirled, but the stranger with whom she had shared the momentary intimacy was lost in the crowd. More bodies bumped her along the way. Jhayni stared up at those indifferent faces, that looked neither left nor right, eyes and thoughts intent on some far-off goal–their houses and offices, dinner and children. Like a small boat upon a churning frothing monster of a river, Jhayni whirled, carried along by the current, bumping into things every which way.

    “Sorry,” she murmured, as she flinched from yet another contact. “Sorry,” she said to a post she was pushed against. Her heart constricted painfully, her lungs seemed squeezed together. No escape! No escape!

    Jhayni put her head down and pushed against the hard bodies, like a swimmer from a ship-wreck, clawing through debris. Maybe she was that. Maybe all these disinterested people were corpses, animated only for this purposeless purpose of coming and going. They came thicker and faster; the press of bodies was constant, the sting and slap of hands and baskets and sacks on her arms now a dull pain. She could not win against them, all her efforts were futile, her heart was giving up, her lungs already had. Her head was taking flight, her eyes rolling over to see the darkness in her mind, she would fall right here… to be trod into the earth by those relentless uncaring feet….

    A gust of fresh air, free of fried food and sweaty odors. Space. Jhayni stumbled out of the current of corpses. She could see again, breathe again. She leaned against a convenient tree. Passers-by drifted by, one or two gave her a puzzled look, most ignored her.

    1. I like where she apologizes to the post. It adds a touch of humor, while still expressing her confusion. I think the simile between the passing people and animated corpses is wonderfully spooky. The name Jhayni made me picture the action happening in India. Am I right?

        1. That’s awesome. The only fantasies I can think of set in Greek-based culture are Megan Whalen Turner’s `Thief’ books, and I can’t think of any that draw from India.

    2. Nice, claustrophobic atmosphere, here. And you gave us relief at just the right moment. Watch those repeated words, though. I was curious about where she was when she got to the free air, and I would expect that to come next, but I do applaud your doing nothing but describing that sensation of freedom at first.

  10. Thanks, all! It’s been great talking with you. I’ll see you out there in the dense fog. No, in the smoke. No, in the crowd…

    Well, you know what I mean.

  11. Aw, man! I am so bummed that I missed this. I had really, really been looking forward to Writer Wednesday, and then I missed it! (Isn’t moving to a new house fun?) I can’t believe I missed it. Argh! I had already gone through my WIP looking for atmospheric passages and everything. Grr!

    1. Life does get in the way, I know. We missed you!

      Go ahead and post it and we’ll have at it!

    2. I came late, too. In my case, a couple of cousins found me. Plus I’ve got anew search-project. So even knowing the discussion was going on didn’t help me find time to dive into any sooner. {lop-sided Smile}

      I’m not sure you’re entirely too late tho. With follow-up notifications, some folks should notice. I will. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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