Have you ever noticed that some books you read are able to create such a feeling of time and place that you only have to think about the book for an image of a person or locale to form? The author has managed to create such a vivid world that you continually want to be part of it, and you re-read the book endlessly for that reason.
Sometimes the feelings generated are so strong that the story itself is an irrelevancy; in fact the only reason you're reading it is so you can be part of that world again. However the author has managed it, she or he has created a world that seems to exist as an entity separate from the story, even though it only exists because of the story being written.
That is what separates the truly wonderful from the merely mundane books. If the first thing that happens is a desire to immediately reread, or if I find myself wishing a work would continue on and on, then that is a good indication that the author has been successful in generating that evocative atmosphere. It's funny to read a story for those reasons, because I find myself disappointed that the people are still doing the same things they were the last time I was in their world. (I'd hazard a guess and say this is probably what motivates so much of fan fiction – people trying to recreate a world they've come to appreciate, not very often with much success)
Now the conundrum becomes for me as an author, and not the reader: how the hell do you write a book like that? I've be rereading my manuscript, wondering if I've been able to generate that feeling of time and place. If I'm honest with myself, I have to say while I think I've been able to capture the physical representations fairly well, it seems rather flat.
I've been reading quite a few pieces lately that rely far more on — for lack of a better phrase, and bear with me if it sound pretentious — historical texture. Do they generate more atmosphere than other works I've read in the past? You can almost feel the weight of history in the characters and the settings.
I should clarify what I'm talking about when I say history. I don't mean a series of dates and things that happened in the past, although they can be important to the plot, but the fact that the culture has existed for thousands of years.