|cemetery at Muckross Abbey, Ireland|
|abandoned cemetery, Gold Hill, Colorado|
It's a pretty, quiet cemetery. I've only been there once, and that was when I was in high school, but I remember the warm afternoon sun on yellow grass, the vanilla scent of the ponderosa pines, the quiet. And I remember a trio of little white gravestones, identical and all in a row, marking the graves of three children from the same family. All three were under the age of four, and all three had died within two weeks of each other in November of 1880. Their parents aren't buried in the same graveyard.
This is why I love graveyards: you can be enjoying a walk on a sun-dappled afternoon, crunching through the late summer grass and watching the sky to gauge how much daylight you have left, and you can discover at your feet a glimpse of a story, a single-frame flicker of the lives and deaths of people who you've never met and never will. It's always the unhappy ending you see in a graveyard, no matter how peaceful the setting, and rarely much more than that.
And I love that with a little bit of imagination it's so easy to transform a graveyard, to change the story at your feet and the one all around you, shape it into something different and new. Like this: Fast-forward an hour or two and a warm, sunny afternoon because a brisk twilight, with the sun sinking fast, the temperature dropping every minute, the wind picking up and whispering through the grass.
Or this: Flip the seasons and the crackling yellow grass beneath your feet because a hard crust of snow, the gentle stroll through the graves an uncomfortable trek, the sunshine on your shoulders a biting wind. Put a few hard-to-identify footprints in that crusty snow and suddenly you're not alone.
|Woodland Cemetary, Cleveland, Ohio|
They're probably houses. They're almost certainly houses. What else would they be?
Imagine yourself in a graveyard and change anything at all--the weather, the season, the presence or absence of other people, the age of the gravestones--and a peaceful day becomes an ominous night, a bleak funeral fades to a fond remembrance, a welcoming parkland shifts into an unsettling maze.
And that, in addition to be a way for your overactive imagination to stretch its legs, happens to be a very useful habit for a writer to have.
It's hard for me to start writing anything unless I can imagine being there. There, wherever the character is, following behind their shoulder like a ghost. Seeing what they see, smelling what they smell, feeling what they feel--and, most of all, figuring out how to make sure the reader feels it too. I don't know why I have to write this way; obviously not everybody does. But it's what I've got, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the right mood and atmosphere I want for every scene. I have to think about it before I fix what's going to happen, before I decide what the characters are going to say, before I see how the story is going to move forward.
What builds mood and atmosphere are the sensory details that evoke an emotional response. Nobody ever feels anxious and unsettled if the narrative states, "The forest was creepy. So creepy. Like, whoa, creepy." Defining somebody's emotional response for them never works out the way you want it to. In writing as in life, you are more likely to get it wrong than to get it right, and when you get it wrong you end up with a reader who is at best bored and unimpressed, and at worse so put off by the discrepancy they stop reading.
If you want your reader to be creeped out, you've got to make the graveyard creepy and let the reader feel it. If you do it well, the reader's sense of unease will follow. If you do it really well, that unease will sneak up on them so stealthily they won't even notice how encompassing it is until they're already thinking about hiding under their bed.
The way to do this, of course, is to make reading a sensory experience. To make what's on the page feel so real the reader can't back out--and doesn't want to. But you can't just throw a giant pile of undifferentiated details onto the background radiation of your story and expect the reader to receive the signal what you want them to receive. You can be descriptive, your words can be rich and lush and evocative, but you still have to be choosy. Being choosy means asking yourself: What is going to make this moment memorable? What is going to make this experience of moving the character through this scene move the reader right along with them? What's it going to take to make the reader feel what the character is feeling?
It isn't just about what the character sees and hears. Sight and sound are easy. A figure glimpsed through the trees. The snap of a branch. A distant voice, impossible to make out. But you can also stir up a lot of emotional resonance by recruiting the other senses to work alongside the eyes and ears. A whiff of perfume when you thought you were alone--or smoke, or sweat, or musk, or rot so strong you can taste it as much as smell it. Take a step and the ground gives more than you expect--perhaps a bit squishy? And after such a dry season. You just walked through a cobweb; how careless. You think it was a cobweb. You've just noticed how many of the gravestones have the same death date. The exact same death date. The birds have stopped singing.
I'm using such an obvious cliché as an example for a reason: because what works for turning a walk through a graveyard from pleasant to unsettling works for any other kind of atmosphere you want to invoke. Want to make the reader feel cozy and relaxed? Think about the things you associate with comfort and safety--not just the setting, not just the circumstances, but the specific sensory details that you most strongly associate with feeling a certain way. Pay attention to the world outside your head for a little while. Notice things: small sounds, fleeting scents, everyday sights, odd textures.
|cemetery at St. Tudno's Church, Wales|
What you're doing is constructing a complex puzzle-box of atmosphere all around your reader, and within that box they're going to figure out for themselves how they feel about it. If in your story you hold out your hand and offer an appealing invitation-- join me for a walk in this forest, never mind the shadows, it'll be fun--readers will want to come along.
And when they're following along like that, eager to explore this world you've built, the experience is going to be stronger, the emotions more lasting, more honest, and more complex than any you could have stated outright in your narrative. Those feelings are going to help your words dig their claws in deep and linger for a long time after the story is done.
Shallow Graves will be published on January 26, 2016.
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The opinions expressed in guest posts are the views of the designated authors and do not necessarily reflect those of YA Highway members.