Fear and Atmosphere

The writing of a work of fiction requires a good deal of patience. Other factors are involved, but patience is a virtue that might be said to transcend all others. In writing and rewriting the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, I used some of the methods I’d found effective as a translator. For example, one’s initial translation must not be considered anything more than a first pass, an attempt at bringing the foundations of a structure into existence. Meaning, subtlety, and significance can come later when you review and review and build and enhance and do everything you can to approach what you imagine the author to have intended for a reader to grasp and experience.
At the outset of a work of fiction, you likewise want to establish a narrative, to get your ideas out into the open. I approach this initial step with as much exuberance as I do with trepidation. If the joyous energy of creating wins out over the other, I allow it to take me and my prose, unchecked, to wherever it wants to go. When, after at least a day has passed, I look at what I’ve written, I realize just how careless and irresponsible I’ve been with my prose. But that can always be fixed. I don’t need to get it right the first time around, I need to get it written! The important thing is that I have, in print, something I believed in. Sometimes, that something is surprisingly good. But most of the time, it doesn’t read right. When I read it aloud, it sounds a tad, or more, off. (That’s a sort of taste test I always employ for my work). Revision after revision follows. In translating I was always fascinated by how, finally, when the book was published and I could turn its pages, I discovered that the passages that had appeared initially to present the most difficulties were the ones that read smoothly, beautifully. The reason, I realized over time, was that those were the ones on which I expended the most effort, the ones I pondered over the longest, the ones that received from me, the translator, the most polishing. That’s why they shone so brightly.

In the process of revising and editing, I’ve discerned a few stages. Maybe not in every case, but often enough to make an impression. Aside from achieving clarity and fluency, in the story and in the language used to tell it, the two elements that I keep track of are fear and atmosphere. Every chapter, if it is to be successful, must contain these elements if the reader is to remain engaged, the first step in entertainment. These elements are particularly important in the genres of mystery and crime. Without them, a novel is not a novel but, instead, a lengthy documentary, or report, or newspaper story. Why? Because these are what give life to a novel, and a novel needs to live and breathe if it is to entertain.

In my research for the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, I came across the following passage at the very beginning of a book written by a traveler to Algiers.

“Writers, I take it, firstly write to please themselves. If not, ’tis ten to one their writing pleases nobody. Following my postulate I have set down that which pleased me upon my pilgrimage, hoping that it may please at least some two or three who like myself have wandered.”

Moghreb-El-Acksa; A Journey in Morocco, by R. B. Cunningham Graham (London: William Heinemann, 1898)

When he talks about ‘pleasing,’ he’s talking about entertainment. If a mystery is to entertain, it should establish its own unique atmosphere. Think of the moors in England and how often they’ve figured in the work of writers from Ann Radcliffe with her Gothic tales, to the Sherlock of Arthur Conan Doyle to the Peak District of Stephen Booth and scores of other writers, great and small. Atmosphere, and in any form or degree, is essential. It can be introduced by no more than a few words, or it can come, as in the opening of Dickens’ BLEAK HOUSE, in a stream that carries the reader off and into the unknown. I am hopeful that each chapter in the series of Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries conveys a sense that sense of atmosphere to the reader.

I am likewise hopeful, and I work toward this, that every chapter contains, or conveys, an element of fear. This can take the form of a forewarning, or a moment of prescience. It might also be a simple, but ominous, impression on a character. My protagonist, Muhammad Amalfi, nee Ettore, must always be in danger, preferably mortal, or at least in trouble of one sort or another. In some chapters, in some of the books, he’s unaware of the trouble that lurks around the corner. Or he’s aware, but no one else is because the trouble is imagined, or has yet to materialize. He has visions he calls ‘daylight dreaming’ when he is so troubled by his situation that he can’t sleep. This, too, is essential for the success of a mystery, especially one involving crime. A horror story, if it doesn’t have something that scares the living daylights out of the reader, is just a story. Because mystery involves the unknown, maybe the unlikely and the incredible, even horrible, it keeps the reader in suspense. How better to maintain that sense of tension and uncertainty than by means of placing a character in jeopardy and thereby projecting fear. Fear and atmosphere!

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