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.
The people have their own legends, their stories that explain who they are and where they come from. They've developed a body of thought as per their analysis of their religion and a variety of philosophies to help cope with the exigencies of life. But the authors of these books haven't had to spell any of it out; one way or another we know it's there.
It underlies all the action, it's in the way the characters talk, and it appears to shape the way they think. It's more than a simple history; it's a cultural identity that is never talked about directly but is always present. Everything from the way the characters walk to the food they cook has to be consistent with this identity for the atmosphere to be successfully rendered.
Now unless you plan on copying an already existing culture, which would still involve incredible amounts of research so you don't make any slips or show inconsistencies with what others may recognise, this means having to create a history for the people, or peoples, who populate your work.
It doesn't even have to be information that is used in the book, although I've been thinking of adding a preface to my manuscript as a means to introduce some of the most important themes. It has to be there for you, the author, to draw upon, as much as your characters need to be able draw upon it in their daily living.
I've started to think that when writing I need to create two outlines – one for the plot and all its intricacies and one for the cultural history of whoever it is you are going to write about. Obviously if you are writing about contemporary life you don't need to do too much except make sure you don't deviate from what the people of the class you're writing about would normally do in the circumstances you are describing.
But if you are creating whole cultures you need to know everything from the names they give the constellations of the stars, to their preference in pickling processes on the off-chance that the topic might come up in conversation amongst your characters. Does that sound like a ridiculous amount of work? Perhaps so, but I don't believe you can create a believable atmosphere without it.