Using Images to Create Atmosphere

During the writing of my current book and the previous one, Danger by Association, I have found a technique that is useful in creating the atmosphere for a particular scene in a novel. I therefore thought I would share it. Here’s an example of how it works in practice:

If you are writing about an abandoned building, for example, type ‘abandoned building’ in Google images and you should be able to view a good selection on your screen. Next, select an image that you feel captures the scene you want to create. If one image alone doesn’t work for you, perhaps you could try combining two different images. Take a note of what you can see e.g. mouldy bricks, peeling wallpaper etc.

While looking at the image, and thinking about the atmosphere, don’t forget to use the five senses. So rather than just describing what you can see think about how the building would feel. Is it cold inside? Can you hear the wind rustling through the eves? What does it smell of – damp? mustiness?

Once you have typed up your notes you will have a good idea of the atmosphere you want to create. Next, put your character at the scene. How does he or she feel about the abandoned building? Why are they there? Have they gone to meet someone? Are they frightened? Are they distressed? Use powerful verbs to describe your character’s actions as they enter the building.

Here’s an example of part of a scene I created in Danger by Association using this technique:

pngmedium-cartoon-building-575811

A few more seconds and they were all inside. Rita scanned the room as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Their makeshift entrance led into a classroom. The place had an eerie feel to it and Rita shuddered.

There were no longer any desks or chairs, but in the half-light she could see cupboards lining one of the walls. The doors of one cupboard were hanging off, its contents spilling out onto the dusty classroom floor. She was surprised the cupboards still contained old books and papers; this seemed to emphasise the state of abandon.

They crept through the classroom and into a long corridor. Here a strong smell of urine assailed them. The ceiling was high with small skylights. This meant that there was more light here than in the classroom, but in the gloom of night it cast strange shadows on the walls, which unnerved Rita.

In the distance she could hear weird noises; a tapping, and a faint gushing sound, perhaps from running water. She also thought she heard the murmur of voices but it was difficult to tell.

Hopefully by following this technique you will write scenes that capture the atmosphere you are aiming for.

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Why Thinking Time is Important for Authors

Recently, while writing my third novel, I reached a bit of a standstill. I was following the outline that I had written but it felt a little like painting by numbers, and I didn’t have the enthusiasm that I had for A Gangster’s Grip. In fact, because of this situation I had put off writing for a few days.

With my first two books I was so enthusiastic that the ideas were spilling out of me. I would wake up with an idea for a scene later on in the book or it would form while I was out at the shops or taking a shower. However, with my third novel things were different. 18,000 words in and this still wasn’t happening. To complicate matters, I needed to do some primary research but I didn’t want it to halt my flow while I was waiting for the answers.

What if

Thinking TimeIn my search for inspiration I started reading a James Patterson novel and going over some of the notes from my writing course, but it still wasn’t happening. So, I put the books to one side, lay down on my bed, shut my eyes and thought about the plot so far.

What had happened up to now? What direction was the novel heading in? How could I inject some suspense and excitement on the way to reaching my final destination (as I already had the ending worked out)? How could I write my way around the scenes requiring research while I awaited answers to my research questions?

N.B. You’ll note that I refer to ‘scenes’ rather than ‘chapters’ because I like to think of ‘scenes’ while I am writing. This helps me to visualise what is taking place. I haven’t yet allocated chapters but I will come to that later. With my first two books I divided them into chapters as I went along but then found that I had to make some alterations at the end, so I’m trying a slightly different approach this time.

Whilst lying on my bed I went over the scenes I had already written in my mind. Then I started thinking about the scenes that were to follow. I decided to write the next scene based on assumptions but highlight it so that I could easily make changes once I had received the answers to my research questions. Once I had decided how to go forward with that scene, I found that the rest fell into place, and ideas started to form for subsequent scenes. I picked up my small notepad and within a half hour I had several pages of notes.

 

Notepad

That half hour or so was worth so much more than hours spent at a computer keyboard willing the ideas to come. It’s great to be able to sit at the computer and hammer away on the keys when you already have a few pages of notes to guide you along. The notes should keep me going for a few more thousand words but if I come unstuck again, I’ll try employing the same tactic.

I’d love to hear from other authors regarding this topic. Have you ever come across a similar problem and, if so, how have you tackled it?

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Writing Using the Five Senses

As I have returned to fiction writing after a long break I have decided to brush up on some of the skills I learnt on my writing course many years ago. I have therefore recently been reading a book called ‘Teach Yourself Writing a Novel’ by Nigel Watts. Whilst reading chapter 9, ‘Setting the Scene’, part of this chapter reminded me of something I covered on my writing course. This relates to utilising all of the senses when describing a scene from a character’s viewpoint because this helps the reader to picture the scene i.e. don’t just describe a scene or character visually but also describe how it sounds, smells etc. Perhaps you could be describing a mangy room where the odour is so bad you can almost taste it, for example.

EarOn this blog I have previously described how when I was writing my first novel I became really engrossed and felt almost as though I was the protagonist and was experiencing everything that she was going through. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because I was utilising the five senses. With my second novel I haven’t felt that same attachment up to now and I know that I need to recapture that feeling before I return to it. Hence I am revisiting some of the techniques that I learnt previously.

Another example of utilising the five senses would be if the protagonist was to enter the scene of a burning building. By using the five senses you would not only describe the visual impact but also the sound of the flames, the feel of the heat, the smell of burning flesh or the choking effects of the smoke. Obviously it isn’t always necessary to use all five of the senses but by using a few of them you can add dimensions to your scene. Because this helps readers to imagine the scene, it fits in with that old writing adage of ‘don’t tell, show’.

I was pleased to find an example in my debut novel where I’d taken on board some of the advice I’d picked up in trying to set the scene. In this particular scene the protagonist has just been subjected to a vicious verbal attack in the canteen where she works, as she is one of the suspects in a murder inquiry.

Mouth

Julie’s first reaction was to flee from the room as quickly as possible, but Norma’s words kept echoing inside her head, and she told herself, “If I run, everyone will think I’m guilty.” She knew that she had to see it through. “I’m going to eat this bloody pie if it kills me,” she told herself. “I’ve got to try to act as normally as possible; I mustn’t let them get to me.”

Consuming the meal was a struggle. Julie had never before realised that eating could take such an infinite length of time. Her muscles were tense and she found it a tremendous effort to eat each mouthful. Her throat was so constricted that she felt as though she would choke each time she tried to consume the bland pie. Occasionally, she raised her head and glanced around the room just to let people see that she wasn’t about to bow her head in shame.

 NoseShe could sense eyes watching her, but each time she raised her head, they quickly diverted their gaze. This caused her to become even more self-conscious. She felt as though her every movement was being noted; the shaking of her hands, the way she struggled to swallow – her face becoming more flushed with each agonising gulp, the way she shuffled uncomfortably on her chair.

A piece of pie then became lodged in her throat and she lifted her drink so that she could attempt to swill it down. Unfortunately, the cup slipped from her shaking hand. She quickly grasped at it and managed to steady the cup on the table, but not before some of the contents had spilt onto her food.

As she replaced the cup, Julie heard somebody clear their throat and a couple of people coughed, as though indicating a break in the tension. She couldn’t face going to the canteen staff for a cloth to wipe up the mess, so Handshe searched her bag for a tissue. Julie only succeeded in clearing up part of the drink with her tissue, so she had to face eating the rest of her meal with her plate swamped by liquid.

She had managed to swallow the lump of Shepherd’s pie whilst her mind had been drawn to other things, and this had encouraged her to quickly devour a few more forkfuls. However, she was still only two thirds through the pie, and was beginning to struggle to swallow it once more. She knew that she mustn’t leave any on her plate, as this might suggest that she had rushed away, unable to face people any longer.

When Julie eventually reached the point where a marginally acceptable amount was left on her plate, she arranged her cutlery so that it concealed the biggest lumps of food. She then stood up and pulled back her chair as calmly as she could, in defiance of her rapidly beating heart and clammy hands. Julie then walked slowly and deliberately from the canteen with her head held high.

Eye

Please feel free to share your thoughts about using the five senses in your writing, by adding your comments below.

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Tips for Tackling Writer’s Block

I have now finished my series of blogs about becoming a copywriter so I’m returning to more general writing topics for a while although I’ll still be covering copywriting from time to time. I thought I’d start with some tips on how to tackle a perennial problem for many writers – the dreaded writer’s block.

Writer's Block

Writer’s block usually occurs when your brain is overworked so that you become mentally tired. When this happens it becomes harder to write and you can find yourself unable to produce work that’s of your usual standard. Words that would normally flow from your keyboard are difficult to find and you become increasingly dissatisfied with your work when you read it back to yourself.

There are a few ways of dealing with this problem and some will suit you better than others. It will most likely depend on the extent of the problem i.e. whether it is just a short-term blip or whether it is more long-term. Here are some tips that might help:

1. Continue writing anyway and don’t worry if it doesn’t read quite as good as it should. At least you are getting something down on paper (or screen) and you can always return to your work after sleeping on it. You will often find that you can make huge improvements once you tackle it with a fresh mind.

2. Take a rest from writing for a short while and take part in physical activities such as walking, gardening or swimming as these can enable you to relax. Even watching TV or listening to music can help; basically get involved in anything that diverts your attention from your writing and gives your brain a rest.

Swimming

3. While you’re taking a break from writing it doesn’t mean you have to take a break from reading. Read a few good books or have a good browse in your local library or bookstore. Do it in a relaxed way though rather than with a particular aim in mind. The objective is to let ideas creep into your subconscious rather than trying to force them to materialise.

4. You could also try reading newspapers and magazines; all those snippets of information and short stories may just trigger something. Again, take a relaxed approach and read them purely for pleasure.

5. Go out somewhere busy such as a bar, the beach or a bustling city centre. If you’re writing a novel then it could be particularly useful to go somewhere linked with your setting. Don’t try to force ideas into your mind though; just immerse yourself in the atmosphere and enjoy some down time.

6. Try writing out of sequence. Sometimes, if you’re writing a novel, you can be stuck on a particular scene but still have plenty of ideas for what happens later in the book. In fact, you may have already worked out the ending. There’s nothing to stop you writing the plot highlights first then filling in the rest. It’s handy to start with an outline, which acts as a framework that you can then build onto, adding more and more detail as you go along.

7. If your writer’s block is particularly bad and none of the above suggestions help, take a holiday. If you enjoy reading then don’t stop doing it during your holiday but take a break from writing.

Holiday

8. Lastly, and most importantly, don’t obsess about the situation. Worrying about it won’t help as your brain needs to totally switch off. Take comfort in the fact that the situation will right itself eventually. In some ways the brain can be compared to the muscles in your body. For example, if you overworked in the gym and all your muscles were aching badly then chances are you would take a few days off before returning unless you really had to train for something. The same applies to the brain.

Writer’s block can happen to anyone and even the most successful writers suffer with it from time to time. The books I am currently writing are non-fiction, which are mainly researched based and follow a set format so writer’s block is not really a problem for me at the moment. However, I have plans to return to writing novels in the near future so no doubt I’ll be recapping on this post at some point and heeding my own advice.

I hope you have found this article helpful. If so, you are welcome to leave any feedback comments below. Alternatively, if you have any tips for dealing with writer’s block, please share them.