How to Create Atmosphere in Crime Fiction by Michael Wood | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | The Art of Description
Michael Wood

Michael Wood

A question on my English GCSE exam was ‘how does Charles Dickens use weather to create atmosphere in Great Expectations?’ I was stumped. I loved Great Expectations. It was my favourite novel. It still is, and I read it on a regular basis. However, sixteen-year-old me hadn’t even noticed the weather in the story.

Now, as an adult, and a writer, I could write pages answering that question. Atmosphere is created through our characters and whichever one of them is narrating the chapter. Through their eyes, we see the world, but it’s not only their eyes we need to use. We have five senses; we should use them all when writing fiction. If you visit a new place, you don’t simply see it, you hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All of those things should be felt by the character. And so much can be said for the unsaid.

When a character is in a new setting or meets a new person, any little detail can evoke a memory of something past be it something to make them smile or recoil in horror. It provides the reader with an element of an as yet unknown back story. We know there is history here and witnessing a character recoil at the sight of a little girl in a blue duffel coat, we instantly know there is an underlying fear, maybe even horror. A simple shudder can change an entire chapter.

I’m lucky in that I write for two very distinct mediums. My DCI Matilda Darke series is for ebook and print while my psychological thriller standalone novels are purely for an audio market with Audible. Although my writing doesn’t differ much, I use whichever media I’m writing for to create drama and tension and all the things we love in reading or listening to crime thrillers.

Firstly, for audio, it helps if you have a good actor reading your work, and I’ve been blessed with talented actors, who, already add an extra layer of the drama to a book. It almost feels like you’re listening to a play as they put all the emotions of each character into their narrative. When it comes to dialogue, overstressing just one word can change the dynamics of a sentence. Purposely, I’ll sometimes overstress the wrong word. It will give a hint that sounds ‘off’ and to the listener, they know something is not quite right here. The atmosphere has changed, and the tension is taken up a notch.

vengeance is mineIt is important for the writer to know their characters inside and out. Not everything makes the page. For example, my Matilda Darke series is approaching its tenth book and I know so much about Matilda that the reader doesn’t. I know her middle name, where she went on holiday as a child, her favourite foods and colours. It’s not important to the story, but knowing her like a best friend, I can write her and put in the odd pause, stagger, mumble, and flinch at a particular point and the reader will notice she is uncomfortable when she may not need to be. That kind of detail comes across better on the page than it does through audio and it’s the narrative that is key, and why all five senses should be considered when writing.

I, along with other writers, am guilty in using weather a great deal in my work. It’s instant atmosphere. A thunderstorm and torrential rain are dramatic and perfect for a final showdown between killer and detective. A sunny day with perfect blue skies and hot temperatures is ideal for a romance. But dare to be different and flip them over. How passionate and electric would a first date be against the backdrop of a raging storm? How charged and dangerous would a confrontation be during a heatwave between a violent, unpredictable killer and a detective eager to make an arrest? Literally, anything could happen in those scenarios and the atmosphere of the elements gives an extra dramatic tension to add to the excitement.

For my latest Audible standalone thriller, Vengeance Is Mine, I use a time jump to create atmosphere. A child is killed, and the murderer swiftly caught. He’s sent to prison and released twenty years later. In those two decades, we don’t know what the characters have been up to, but how they are in the present we’re given a hint as to their distress and pain. For twenty years, a mother has grieved for her daughter. We immediately know she is holding onto a lifetime of agony. Through various devices, narrative, dialogue, and a good actor, this pain is filtered through to the reader who can instantly feel the raw emotion through a single sentence.

So many elements are needed to create an engaging crime fiction novel and it takes time and dedication to get them all right. When Charles Dickens was writing, his novels were released in serials, and he needed his readers to be hungry for the next chapter to be released. Now, we get the complete novel in one go so we writers need to hook you from the first page until the four hundredth page. It’s not easy, and it would be unfathomable to end each chapter on a massive cliff-hanger, but through the smallest attention to detail, whether it’s a young girl in a blue duffel coat, the smell of the seaside evoking a dark childhood memory, or overstressing the wrong word, we can keep the reader intrigued and eager to find out what happens next. Always remember, it’s the smallest details that can make the biggest difference.

(c) Michael Wood

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Vengeance is Mine by Michael Wood, narrated by Jill Halfpenny and Mark Stobbart, is available on Audible now.

About Vengeance is Mine:

vengeance is mineA standalone thriller from the author of the DCI Matilda Darke crime series. Perfect for fans of Stuart MacBride, Mark Billingham and Val McDermid.

A killer has done his time but has justice really been served?

On her 13th birthday, Stephanie White was abducted from the streets of Newcastle and brutally murdered. Her death shook the neighbourhood and devastated the lives of everyone around her. Twenty years later, the killer is due to be released from prison and one woman can no longer keep the secret she vowed never to tell. The secret that the father of her child is a convicted murderer.

Dawn Shepherd always longed to have a father but when her mother finally reveals his identity after 20 years, Dawn realises you should be careful what you wish for. Her father has always maintained his innocence but how much can Dawn trust a man she has never met who has been convicted of murder? Disgusted and intrigued in equal measure, Dawn goes on a mission to uncover what happened to Stephanie and work out if a killer’s blood runs through her veins. Clues are resurfaced, witnesses re-interviewed and wounds reopened in the search for truth and justice. After delving deep into the past, Dawn soon discovers that all is not as it seems.

Join us on a journey into the heart of family loyalty, on a path to discover whether blood really is thicker than water.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

I am Michael Wood, author of the Sheffield based crime fiction series featuring DCI Matilda Darke. As of 2022 there are ten books in the series and an eleventh will be released in 2023. I’m also the author of two standalone psychological thrillers that are available exclusively with Audible called The Seventh Victim and Vengeance Is Mine. I am constantly scribbling away and have many other projects up the sleeves of my duffel coat. When I’m not writing, I’m usually moaning about having little sleep and talking about my favourite biscuit on social media. Look me up on Facebook (MichaelWoodBooks), Twitter (@MichaelHWood) and Instagram (MichaelWoodBooks). I’m a massive fan of reading crime fiction as I like to keep an eye on the competition and wondering if I can steal any of their ideas, give the characters a Sheffield accent, and pass them off as my own original creation. Happy reading.

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