I reviewed this brilliant debut novel on my blog yesterday – you can read my review here. Today I am delighted to welcome the author Kat Gordon to my blog. She has written a fascinating piece about how she develops atmosphere in her work from initial ideas. Over to you Kat:
When I first started writing my novel I knew three things very clearly: I knew my protagonist, Tallie, would be headstrong and loving and, in the present day storyline, she would be damaged; I knew the major events in the story that would cause this damage; and I knew how the story would end. I didn’t know much of the in-between, so I ended up feeling my way into lots of the scenes and settings, only putting down enough detail for an atmospheric impression. Then, in later drafts I would bulk up the descriptions, really focusing on things such as colours, smells and sounds.
A good example of this process is the first time the reader is introduced to Matilda, Tallie’s grandmother, and her large country house:
My grandmother’s house seemed like a castle to me. She had a gardener and a cook when we were really young, a lake, and stables, although – sadly for us grandchildren – no horses. My grandfather had been the rider; within a week of his death she’d sold them all off.
I always had the same bedroom at my grandmother’s; it was yellow and faced the walled garden at the side of the house. My parents’ room was rear-facing and had a view of the lake, but I liked my sloping ceiling, and the latticed window high up in the wall. I had to climb onto a chair to see out of it, which was forbidden because the chairs at my grandmother’s were all at least a hundred years old, or so she said.
I wanted to create a sense of space and freedom – with the lake and the ‘castle’-like proportions of the house – that conflicted with the intimidating figure of the grandmother who forbids climbing on furniture and sells off her late husband’s animals without compunction. These elements make up the atmosphere the young Tallie would pick up on, but there aren’t many visual triggers.
Our grandmother was terrifying – she towered over us, all bones and dark eyes. Her fingertips were yellow after years of smoking and she smelled like lavender with an undercurrent of mushrooms. She walked four miles every day; she didn’t believe in being ill. She never spoke to us, unless it was to tell us off, and she cleared her throat all the time, making a sound like ‘hruh’. If she wasn’t there, James said, going to hers would be great. I agreed – the house seemed like a castle to me, with a gardener and a cook, a lake, and stables, although – sadly for us grandchildren – no horses. My grandfather had been the rider; within a week of his death she’d sold them all off to the farmer two fields away.
Most of the house, my mother told me, had been built in the Victorian period, but little extensions had been added over the years so that from the outside it looked like a puzzle with the pieces jammed together in any order. There was a long, tree-lined drive leading up to it that twisted and turned and suddenly opened out onto a clearing and the house and a silver glint of the lake in the garden beyond. The windows on the ground floor were the biggest, at least three times as tall as me; the first floor windows led on to a little balcony that ran along the front of the house and the second floor windows were small, where the ceilings were lower. The outside of the house was a pale yellow colour, like it was made of sand, and the roof was covered with grey tiles.
There was an older wing, made of small, grey stones, to the left of the house. It slanted upwards like a church, and it was the only part of the original Tudor house left after a fire destroyed the building in the nineteenth century. My grandmother had a painting of the house in flames that she hung in the entrance hall. When I was older, I asked her why she kept it; she said it was a reminder that our family had been through disaster and come out the other side.
The Tudor wing was where I slept, in a yellow room that faced the walled garden at the side of the house. I was separated from the others by a short, uneven corridor, and a thick, wooden-beamed doorway. My parents’ room was just beyond the doorway; it was rear-facing with a view of the lake, but I liked my sloping ceiling, and the latticed window high up in the wall. I had to climb onto a chair to see out of it, which was forbidden because the chairs at my grandmother’s were all at least a hundred years old, or so she said.
I wanted the reader to have a visual understanding of the house and Matilda as well as an ‘atmospheric’ understanding. Also, by describing Matilda in more detail (Our grandmother was terrifying – she towered over us, all bones and dark eyes), I could give both the impression that a young Tallie found her frightening, and an older Tallie recognised how ridiculous that fear was (since presumably Tallie has grown taller and realised that Matilda isn’t a giant, and height doesn’t equal threat).
Maybe I write this way (sketching out an atmosphere first, then going back and filling it in) because that’s how my memory works – I wouldn’t be able to tell you what someone was wearing if I’d seen them a week ago, but I would probably be able to describe their mood. Every writer I know is completely different – some start off with very rich, lyrical descriptions and have to go back later to add in more dialogue; some start off with dialogue and have to write in more physical movement later. It’s very rare that a writer can finish a novel in one draft, but it’s fascinating how we all approach it in different ways!