How to create atmospheric settings in your writing
Author Amanda Reynolds describes how she turns the cosy Cotswolds into the sinister territory of her thrillers
Where I live we have no streetlights, the stars unburdened by light pollution. I can remember following the central white lines one night with friends after a party, the path too dark to navigate and the road so quiet we knew we’d have plenty of warning in the silent December air, car tyres audible at least several hundred yards away and headlamps arcing well before they reached us. But of course as a writer, these moments offer up great ‘What Ifs?’. The peace shattered; the darkness invaded.
We all need to find something new to say or a new way to say it, stretching beyond first, second, third thoughts to entice and excite our readers and keep those pages turning. The choice of setting is therefore vital. Setting creates tone and texture but that doesn’t mean it has to conform to type or genre, in fact, quite the reverse. It can be a great way to subvert expectations.
Imagine the Cotswolds and most likely your imagination will conjure bucolic images of rolling hills, honey-coloured cottages, and villages with more tea shops than serious crime. Country life is often aspirational, middle-class, affluent and chocolate-boxy. This is where the interplay between a rural setting and the darkness that lurks beneath becomes fascinating. The juxtaposition between the exterior and interior, between perception and reality.
You only have to look at social media to know that we present to the world a carefully curated version of our real lives, edited and filtered. Psychological suspense is built on that conceit, all the more chilling for its supposed ordinariness. Allowing readers to imagine themselves in the character’s compromised position, the reality close to home, and the threat even more vivid if it comes not from a stranger down a dark alley but across the kitchen table, embodied in the very person we trust most. A setting that reflects the normality of everyday life, the tranquil dream then disturbed, creates a vivid canvas on which to reveal the secrets of flawed protagonists. When perfection turns sour the fall is further and harder, the betrayal all-the-more profound. Readers are curious, drawn to a closed door, desperate to peek behind tightly shut curtains, or rattle a locked gate to a secret garden, wondering what the lives of others might look like away from public gaze.
The Cotswolds provide the perfect setting for my thrillers — the claustrophobia of a gossip-fuelled small village in Lying To You, the bubble burst on a perfect marriage in a converted barn in Close To Me, a lie leading to another in the remotest of locations in the glorious manor house of The Hidden Wife. I cannot imagine my stories playing out anywhere else. The warm touch of Cotswold stone in the sunshine, the waterlogged country lanes in the rain, the white hills in the snow, pristine like the slopes of an alpine resort. There’s something very intimate about living in a village, clues left and passed along, the small changes noticed, absences logged. But don’t expect it to be all scones and tea on the village green, something more sinister awaits on the pages of my novels and when that is contrasted with the beauty of their locations it casts a long shadow.
Whichever setting you choose, be it familiar or far-flung, urban or pastoral, allow it to inform your writing, imbuing the pivotal moments of your work with extra meaning, and driving the actions and responses of your characters in ways a different environment might not. Setting is perhaps our greatest thematic tool and deserves to loom large in our stories and remain in the readers’ thoughts long after they close that final page.
Interested in setting? Read three classic short stories to explore how setting impacts on their plots.