Hello all, and welcome to part 2 of my series on writing historical gay romance. Last week’s post (which you can find here) covered some key elements of creating character. This week we’re talking about atmosphere, something I strive to improve with my own writing every day. Writing historical isn’t just about getting the details right. You need your readers to feel and see the world you created, this era long gone. When I write one of my stories, I see it as a movie in my head, and if I don’t feel as if I’m there, how am I going to get readers there?
The most intimidating part for some folks is getting the details right, but you don’t need to write out every tiny detail, only enough to create a clear image and set the tone. You know why? Because most folks have seen enough TV, movies, artwork, photography, to get an idea of what certain things look like for certain eras that a good deal of the foundation is already there for you to build on. But you don’t want to just throw out any old clichéd description.
Let’s say I’m writing a noir-ish style story. Why do I say noir-ish style and not noir? Because noir is very specific. It’s a very stylized type of crime drama with certain elements needed to make it that genre, and my stories don’t really fall into that category. When I get around to writing Bruce’s story, it’ll probably cover a lot of those elements, as he’s the only character of mine modeled after a Hollywood film noir type detective. The focus of my stories tend to be the romance, not the crime–if any, hence noir-ish. Anyway, so what do we know about noir? I use a lot of film analogies and examples because I’m a big film buff and as an artist, prefer to have visuals to draw from. You don’t have to be an expert to get an idea. Film noir is french for “black film”. (Note: The term wasn’t applied to these films until the mid to late 1940’s by a French critic, and wasn’t widely adopted until much later. Your fella isn’t going to know what the hell film noir is. He’ll understand characters being hardboiled, but not noir.) Okay, so we’re writing this noir scene. What’s the one thing that comes into your head first? You guessed it: lots of shadows and darkness.
Type film noir into Google images and what do you see? A wall of black and white images. And not just black and white, but look at those shadows. The smoke, the fog, the intensity. If we’re writing our scene, it’s not enough for our character to just be walking down a darkened New York or L.A. street. We need to describe these shadows, the fathomless darkness, the veil of fog, the sounds he hears around him but can’t see. Is it raining? How heavy? What’s he wearing? Is the rain and wind getting through his overcoat, whipping at his skin through his upturned collar? What can he smell? Rotting garbage? Is there steam coming up from the sewers? Is there any lighting at all? Where’s it coming from? How’s he feel walking down this street?
If it’s Bruce, he would be in his element. He’s not afraid of the shadows or the world they’re a part. He’s seen worse, done things he’s not proud of, but what the hell, we’re all damned anyway, right? He’s not afraid to die and any mug who wants to go a few rounds can bring it on. He’s a booze guzzling, cigarette smoking, hardboiled detective who always carries a gun, a sap, and his smarts. He fought in the war, sinking into the rotting yellow mud of the trenches while young fellas fell dead at his feet. This street ain’t nothing, and if he gets home at the end of the day with only a few bruised ribs and a nice new shiner, he’d write it off as a good day. This is your movie. You’re the director. Add texture to your scenes, sounds and taste. Then let the imagination of the reader do the rest.
Let’s talk interior. If I’m describing a scene in a character’s bedroom, I want enough detail for readers to get an image of the room. Am I going to use the official name of every piece of furniture he comes across? Let’s say your readers are getting all swept up in the sexual tension between these fellas. One is on the brink of losing it. He can’t deny himself any longer, standing by watching Joe every day, working beside him, being his friend and pretending he feels nothing more, putting up with Joe’s teasing–and all of a sudden, Joe slams his fist on the Chiffonier. What? What the hell is a Chiffonier? It might seem obvious to some, but is there really a reason why I have to call it a Chiffonier and not a chest of drawers–which is technically what it is, just higher and more narrow. Am I writing a story about furniture or guys in love? I’m not saying don’t use any terms of the time, because that sort of defeats the purpose of writing a historical, I’m just saying to use them sparingly. It’s an intense scene where something is about to happen, something big. Emotional drama! Do I really want readers to be thrown out of the moment because of furniture? Which brings me to a very important question: Who are you writing your story for?
The sad truth about historical fiction is that many folks find themselves intimidated,not just with writing it, but reading it as well. It’s not the sole reason some don’t read historical, but it’s one of them. When I decided to write in the 1920’s and 30’s, I had to decide what kind of stories I wanted to tell and who my audience was going to be. There was so much going on during these periods, the possibilities were endless. The fact is, I wanted to entertain. I’ve never been one for tough drama. I’ll never win a Pulitzer with my hard hitting depiction of humanity during these eras, and I’m okay with that. If this were the movie business, I’d never win an Oscar because I’d be making films like Gangster Squad and Sherlock Holmes, not Downfall or Thin Red Line. I love the latter two films, but I haven’t re-watched them since the first time I saw them. Same with films like Schindler’s List. I’ve lost count with how any times I’ve seen The Untouchables or L.A. Confidential.
I’m an entertainer, and to some, that’s a bad word. Critics are always searching for hard-hitting and meaning. Yes, I want my stories to have meaning, to evoke emotion, and yes, they’ll have drama and angst, heartbreaking moments, and a message or two. But I write to entertain. I write so anyone–even those who don’t normally pick up historical can easily read one of my books and enjoy it. I write with the slight exaggeration of a Hollywood motion picture, looking to whisk readers away for a while, to add a little glamour and decadence. The characters will still be very real, with very real traumas, troubles, and heartache, but it will be balanced with humor and fun, because personally, who couldn’t use a little laughter in their lives? The point is, I know the purpose I’m trying to serve. I know the reasons I write what I write, I know who I write for, and I’m happy with it.
Conclusion to Part 2: Atmosphere is about immersing your readers into the world you’re creating not only through accurate detail, but with sights, sounds, and texture. To have readers “see” and “feel” the setting. Use visuals to help you. Movies stills, photography, anything visual that evokes emotion, draw from it. Picture what you want in your mind, how it makes you feel, and slowly translate that to words. Determine who your audience is. Who are you writing for? What do you want to achieve? What kind of story do you want to tell?
Well, I hope you enjoyed Part 2! Stay tuned next week for Part 3: Setting.