Grounded by the Space

This week we kick off a new theme: Atmosphere. As is my habit, I love to start a new theme by researching a few definitions. The usual ones you’d expect–surrounding mood, emotional tone–popped up, but my favorite was this one from Wikipedia:

“An atmosphere … is a layer of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if its gravity is high and the atmosphere’s temperature is low.”

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “how does this relate to writing?” Walk beside me on the twisted path through my brain as I explain. The concept of a layer of gases–which I’m translating to the emotional energy of a space–held in place by the gravity of that body, or to my mind, setting. I’m currently in the midst of transitioning from managing one team of people to another. Soon I will move from an office at one end of a hall, to the office at the opposite end. I have one team that doesn’t want me to move, and another that cannot wait. One office is clearly warm, full, and “lived-in,” while the other is cold, empty, and devoid of personality. Where I currently spend most of my time, even the hall has a level of warmth and congeniality that is hard to define, but easy to feel. The other space lacks the energy of cohesion, leadership, and calm. To my mind, visitors would walk through either space and feel the calm versus the upset, the settled versus the unsettled. It’s very odd. But, while my current situation is a tad overwhelming, and being unable to make anyone fully happy right now is frustrating, I’m madly making mental notes of these feelings for use in my writing. The setting–new office versus old–is holding the atmosphere–happy hallway versus unsettled hallway–in place. The emotional energy is linked to the space, and vice versa. So, I’m going to move halfway into my new office soon, and focus on creating a space that encourages positivity, calm, and teamwork. I’m thinking about how to re-configure the space to make it functional for how I work best, how to decorate it to convey a feeling of support, how I’ll create a space that exudes confidence, organization, and calm. Colors, textures, and scents (I’m a big fan of sandalwood oil or cinnamon), are all things that will contribute to how I create the atmosphere I most want to have for this team. With some luck and a lot of effort, I’ll be able to maintain the current atmosphere for my other team, until we can replace me, and that team has new leadership who can take the wonderful camaraderie that exists to an even higher level. With hard work, I hope to create this experience for both my characters and my readers. (A bit more tricky, using only words to accomplish this!) Atmosphere is taking setting to another level, I think. Recently, I discovered Laurie R. King, who writes the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series. I’m in love! She creates not just a multi-layered setting for the reader, but a full-blown atmosphere with her writing. The setting grounds and holds in place the atmosphere she weaves, pulling the reader fully into the world she has created.  There’s a scene in one of the books where Mary follows Sherlock into London. They have a disagreement, and she spends the night (costumed as a young lad, in this post-world war I period) wandering the city. She shares stale bread with a street urchin, hides from the constables sweeping through, dodges broken glass in alleys, and so forth. She evokes the energy, excitement, danger, and confusion so well, the reader almost expects to smell the smells as s/he reads. It’s lovely. King moves beyond mere setting, but instead builds the atmosphere. What do you think? Is atmosphere just another word for setting, or something…other?


Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

10 thoughts on “Grounded by the Space”

  1. Wonderful post, Pamela, and best of luck with your move. Why is it that changing offices is always difficult? We’re eager for the new, but want to preserve the comfort of the old.

    I’m going to have to check out the Laurie King books. Atmosphere is so hard to define. It is much more than setting. It’s the very air the characters breathe and so hard to capture in words.


  2. I think atmosphere is the layer above setting. Like if your setting is Denver, your next layer talks about the dry air (or lack of air, to keep to the theme), the looming mountains, the prairie, the footprint of DIA, how the train to the airport never works, the crunch of dry autumn leaves, the 3-day blizzard in March, the deer/bear/goose poop to dodge, etc, etc.


  3. Great post Pam.

    I think atmosphere is the umbrella of the elements that make up the story. As a reader, I look for the characters and the environment to draw me into the story. We talk a lot about characters, and they are first, and foremost, my favorite element of a book, but the atmosphere is important as well. ‘They both have to work together. Atmosphere, to m is the global environment and the individual pieces of that environment — geography, nature, plants, rocks, clothes, temperature, weather, smell, touch, taste, color — and the list goes on. All these components of the atmosphere make the story rich, inviting, and real.

    Happy Halloween everyone.


  4. Great post, Pam! I love the hallway image between all that is light and living giving to a place where the energy is frenetic and patanoid. Sounds like a horror story by Stephen King.


  5. Ooh, great intro to this month’s theme, Pamela! I’ll have to muse more on this, but it seems like setting is the place and how it integrates with the plot, but atmosphere is more correlated with tone or feeling. I recently discovered Laurie King’s Beekeeper’s Apprentice, too, and was equally blown away–what a fabulous mystery!


  6. It’s gonna be an interesting month at Mysteristas!

    Great post, Pam.

    I’ll be mulling this over until I write my post, but right now I think atmosphere is that element that can permeate your skin. Soak into your bones. It’s that thing that isn’t quite tangible, but still you can feel it.


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