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!