Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Right Atmosphere

One of the most time-consuming tasks in the writing process is research. Writers are advised to ‘write what you know,’ which is excellent advice, but even writing about those things with which we are familiar doesn’t free us from having to check each fact multiple times. Suppose, for example, that you grew up on a farm in Arkansas during the 1970s, and you want to recapture that era in a bestselling novel. You might suppose that if you create a story that is somewhat autobiographical you are completely safe, and no research will be required. Your novel is going to involve a ‘coming of age’ story, told through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old high school student. You can’t wait to get started, and you sit down in front of your computer and glance at your notes. You will probably make it fine until you get to the third paragraph. What kind of car did your family own? It was the one you learned to drive, but you need a few details to make it seem real in the mind of the reader. Just saying it was a big green car won’t get it in the eyes of your editor or in the mind of your reader. There was something magical about that first car you drove. It was probably where you got your first kiss, spilled a soft drink in the seat and received a chewing out from your father. You probably did other things we won’t discuss here. Why are such details so important? These are the details that create the ‘atmosphere’ of your story. Skillfully applied, you don’t notice details as individual elements that impinge your senses. You only know that you are there in the story and you say to yourself, that’s how it must have been. Details, details, and more details, is how you get the job done.

I am now reading ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett. Follett begins the prologue by giving us the date, which is 1123, and then the opening sentence is, ‘The two small boys came early to the hanging.’ Then he very carefully launches into their behavior, the sights and sounds of the scene he has created. You can hear it, you can fell it, you can smell the world that Follett has created. After reading his first sentence you can’t lay the book down -- you won’t lay the book down! Which reminds me, I have to get back to my reading . . .