Creating The Right Atmosphere


In the writing of any story, atmosphere plays a far larger part than most readers realise. It’s something you have to consciously select when setting out a scene. I often set London in the rain because it is emphatically not a sunny city. The ‘invisible rain’ which cannot be seen falling but makes the streets wet is never far away. The draining of colour from the city has the odd habit of uniting it with the countryside and making it appear timeless. The above pub is not in the countryside but in the centre of one of the busiest parts of the city, hidden in plain sight.

These are spots where the atmosphere virtually creates itself.

The overriding sense of London in the winter is one of dampness. Fogs, mists, rain, coolness, and yet it’s rarely cold. Last night, walking through town, there were girls in scrappy tops and lads in football shorts, simply standing around chatting. London’s weather is rarely noticeable enough to make you change plans. Watching ‘The Ipcress File’ on TV I was struck by the sooty greyness of uncleaned postwar buildings. Those buildings have either been restored or replaced now, but a penumbral cloak of softly sussurant rainfall always returns them to a certain age. The film could have been set at almost any time

The pavements turn slick with algae. The old brick King’s Cross Station develops a thick coating of emerald moss in winter. The woodlands are rich in foliage, the city is fecund; shoots grow between paving stones around the year.

And if the city remains abundant, the countryside remains picturesque in every season. I spent a quiet New Year’s Eve in a friend’s house in Somerset, where every view from the house appeared to have been carefully dressed for an Agatha Christie drama.

This is a timeless community that does not want to see changes – and why should it? Distant enough from Whitehall to make the machinations of London’s mandarins irrelevant, it has barely changed in a hundred years. It’s the main reason why I can’t set murder mysteries in such places very often – change is good for Bryant & May, who need to be shaken from their comfortable jobs. I need to bounce them against the mercurial energy of younger city folk.

I say nothing has changed in the country, but check out this scene opposite this local pub – I’m told that this is not an uncommon thing to see in these parts, owing to the age of the population and the length of time it takes an ambulance to get to the spot.

While London proves weather that never really forces you to change your plans, country weather is positively vengeful. In terms of atmospheric writing, perhaps rural locations have too much atmosphere and not enough people – not the right mix for books about duplicitous murder!

14 comments on “Creating The Right Atmosphere”

  1. Jan says:

    Chris nearly every village has repurposed its T.Ks. (NB type K2 telephone kiosks! Based on the John Soane funerary monument in Old St Pancras churchyard!) At least I think it was Soane…..

    In cities such as Bath they have painted them bright yellow and parked Defib units within.

    DeFibs are a popular repurposing usage because loads of locals will obviously remember the location of the old phone kiosk. VILLAGE HALLS are the next most popular siting for DeFib units. Just in case any of us are ever unlucky enough to want to find one in a hurry.

    Other popular uses for old phone kiosks are as village libraries. I kid you not book swopping centres.

    I thought they might as well make them gents lavs because that seemed to be a popular use for them in the capital. Never went down well though my suggestion. Or my other bright idea that they could be used as a useful site for advertising certain local servces. Well another popular use for t.k.s in the Capital. At that point I realised there probably wasn’t a space on the parish council for me.

    Oh and I found one kiosk in the Scilly isles that was used as a village museum. Honestly I don’t think that much could have happened locally as the first exhibits write up was from the Neolithic period.

  2. Jo W says:

    Recently attended the funeral of a friend,but the solemn occasion was alleviated somewhat by spotting the yellow box of a defibrillator. It was positioned just to the right of the door to the crematorium, through which the coffin was carried.
    Handy, if a trifle late?

  3. Ian Luck says:

    Best use I’ve recently seen for a K2 kiosk is in Coddenham, a tiny village near Ipswich. Their old kiosk is now a library. Full of books when I saw it, and looking tremendously inviting. Good work!

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    If we are talking mass murder in the countryside there can be only one thing to say, Midsomer Murders. (2 new unseen episodes are due to air this January and there is another series due.) Seeing some of these it’s easy to see how folk horror easily leads to folk crime.

    Anyway it only takes two for cat and mouse, and what’s worse than nobody believing you there is someone after you? Having nobody to tell there is someone after you.


  5. Eliz Amber says:

    Reading a book set in November in London, I was reminded that it’s not only the leaden sky – winter light has a poor quality to it, I presume due to the latitude. But I would disagree about the cold – I’ll take one of our sunny days at -22 C and 8% humidity over 1 C and the damp.

  6. Ruzz says:

    Chris – just to say thank you for your blog. I only discovered it late in 2019, although I’ve been reading your books with great pleasure for some years. The blog is of course different from your more formal writing – but if you’ll excuse the comparison with Virginia Woolf (!), I get the same pleasure from this more informal, speculative and ad hoc writing in your blog as I do from her diaries – a real pleasure to see someone thinking aloud (as it were). Thank you. I do a job that sometimes feels never ending, and your blog is a welcome reminder that there are other things to think about.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Look at that top window with it’s window seat wide sill and the inside shutters. Now they may look normal to you but on this side of the world they don’t exist. If you want a sill wide enough for a 4 or 6 inch plant pot you have to beg the builder. We had our kitchen redone with “old-fashioned” wooden framed windows but I had to beg for the sill. The lower set is more modern even if it is 16 panes in two sashes. Looking through it you expect snow, but, yes, those top two pictures could illustrate any of Christie’s set in St. Mary Mead.
    With film we look for things that are either completely familiar or totally strange and somewhere in there is where the feel of the place comes.

  8. Wayne Mook says:

    I didn’t notice the wooden curtains, good spot Helen.

    Now that defibrillator looks like a plot device or murder weapon, either someone goes to grab and ZZZZZZZZZZZZ (very Dr Phibes), or the person who looks like they are having a heart attack….


  9. Helen Martin says:

    We would like to have a defibrillator for our church (the overexcitement of the sermons donchakno) but have been told they cost thousands of dollars. It looks as if they don’t in the UK or do they come in different forms? Anybody know?

  10. snowy says:

    The sort found in community settings in the UK cost between £1000-£2000. A secure exterior cabinet if wanted adds £500, budget for battery replacement every 3 years, plus training sessions.

    If it is placed outside where the public can use it the fund-raising gets easier, obviously, but the management gets more complex, seek out people that have already done it in the region.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Thank you, Snowy, that is pretty much what we figured and it would certainly require outside funds, but considering the groups that use our hall regularly (jazzercize, Tai Chi, Romance Writers, Food Bank, girl guides,boy scouts, etc. etc.) it might be possible, although responsibility might get to be something.

  12. Wayne Mook says:

    Romance Writers, isn’t there a big hoo-ha with the Romance Writers of America to the point they have decided no to hold an award form 2020 called the RITA, turns out they will refund entry fees. I believe the centre of the problem is a race row. It’s even made The New York Times. It’s spread all over the net if you want to read.

    Good luck with the Defib, Helen.


  13. snowy says:

    Are Romance Writers worried about their reputation for ‘hard-edged, gritty realism’? *rolls eyes*

    *Goes off to read the press coverage*

    Summary, so you don’t have to:


  14. Helen Martin says:

    Well, all I know about the Romance Writers group here in Burnaby is that they meet once a month (I think) on a Saturday and they discuss aspects of their writing. They are very strong on their right to privacy and staff members checking on things like a blown fuse, bathroom supplies, and cupboard and frig contents (for Sun. am) are often given intense receptions and we’ve learned to steer clear of them if at all possible. They pay their rent and don’t damage anything so we let them be. The Canadian Romance Writers seem to be eastern Canada so perhaps our people are calmer than the Americans, but given the above, perhaps not. Who knew?

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