Thursday, November 08, 2012


John here. Northern Connecticut survived Hurricane Sandy, I voted Tuesday, and, unlike so many living only a couple hours south, I am very fortunate that life remains unchanged by the recent tragedy.

Status quo means I'm trying to write a lot and trying to improve. One element of fiction I'm particularly aware of right now is atmosphere. I'm reading my Type M colleague Aline Templeton's book Cradle to Grave and loving it. The extent of my travel has consisted of hockey trips as a youth and young adult and my adult life spent on the Texas-Mexico and Maine-New Brunswick borders before moving to southern New England. Never been to Europe. And I love atmospheric fiction – reads like James Lee Burke, Ian Rankin, and Richard Russo. Now Aline has me experiencing her part of the world.

Atmosphere is something I'm trying to be more cognizant of in my own work. My forthcoming novel This One Day is set in and around a fictionalized version of the seedy areas of Hartford, Connecticut. The tone of the book is often established by setting details and descriptions:

Margaret Harrington wasn’t expecting me, so it didn’t matter that I hit the first light I came to and waited. Three high school kids leaned against the brick wall between a liquor store and a tobacco shop. One, a black kid wearing a do-rag, opened his nylon Boston Celtics windbreaker and retrieved a bottle of Wild Turkey. Fifteen or sixteen years old, on a street corner, drinking at 3:30 in the afternoon. The sky was spitting snow, the light already fading. Hutch Hillsdale had just turned eighteen when I first met him. Just another silent kid among the twenty-eight I taught in my evening section of American Literature. Then, one night I was at a library table (an adjunct’s version of “office hours”) when he brought me a story he’d written and asked me to read it.

The kids leaning against the brick wall handed the bottle down the line. Hutch Hillsdale had gone missing. When they found him, it was too late.

Not in James Lee Burke's league, but I do think my choice of details in this short passage help establish the protagonist, a guy with stage-two esophageal cancer who knows his odds are long and struggles with an outlook that is far from that of Randy Pausch, who authored “The Last Lecture.” Consider the nouns used, the details the speaker notices, the voice used to narrate thoughts and actions. I hope you see lower-working-class New England in the brief narrative.

Observation skills go a long way in adding atmosphere to your work. Hemingway said he had to go to Paris to write about Michigan. It might be difficult to recognize what is right under your nose. Most of us stumble through day-to-day life, often failing to recognize what is right in front of us. But the good news is staying alert to the details is something you can always strive for. Carry a notebook, and stay alert.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

I can manage the notebook--it's the alert part that does me in.