Creating the Atmosphere You Want to Write About

It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.

For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.

Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.

As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.


  1. My problem is I sometimes apply too many words to descriptions, which demands too much of some readers. As for boats, I’ve been in a canoe several times (hey, I’m Canadian!), various sizes of motorboats, sailboats, and great big ferries (many times). Ironically, even though the idea of sailing appeals to me (wind-powered transportation), I am terrified when the boat heels more than a little. Heeling over is totally normal while sailing, and many people think it’s thrilling. I don’t, which pretty much finished my romance with sailboats. (Actually, I worked this into a scene in one of my Herbert West novels. The difference was my character got over his fear; I didn’t.) I do find lived experience to be really helpful for writing about something, so I commend your efforts!

    1. I think you write some of the best descriptions of anybody I know, Audrey! Fortunately, I write about situations (like temporal quantum travel) where it’s impossible to experience the phenomenon for yourself!

    2. Thanks, Audrey! I agree completely with Lorinda’s comment–you’re one of the best when it comes to descriptions.

  2. Whatever floats your boat, pun intended. Kind of hard for me travel back to the first century for me to get a sense of reality, but research helped me there. Not difficult with Human Sacrifices to describe the classroom or fundamentalist preachers. The more you read writers who are good at description some of it will rub off. Keep at it Berthold, your getting better with every book.

  3. I’m a description minimalist. As a reader I don’t like having to push through vast thickets of description, and as a writer I try to do no more than what is necessary. Readers have imagination and you don’t need to spell every detail out to them. As a reader I want just enough description to paint a character, add a dash of color, or create the essence of a setting that a plot can operate within. Also, I’m happy to read any description that’s funny. As a writer I try to write what I want to read.

    And I try to draw from experience when I can, as when I describe a snowy night in a recent story, but when I don’t have any experience, well, that’s what imagination is for. At some point, all fiction writing takes us from experience to pure imagination.

    1. I agree with you in general; I’m also not a big fan of lots of description. But after my earliest stories got (justifiably) dinged for having no description whatsoever, I realized I needed to come up with succinct, evocative ways of describing things, because it doesn’t come naturally to me at all.

      As you know, I loved your descriptions of the snowy night in that story. Brief, but enough to instantly make me feel like I was there.

  4. Descriptions are literary traps. Clichés lurk around hidden parts of the narrative. Repetition of words sneak in so they only turn up in much later on in the passage. The flow of the imagination can dry up when some unseen horror dams it up. Whatever you can call upon to keep the picture growing is fine. Experience is a wonderous treasure in these circumstances.

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