I noticed these past couple days the question had arisen amongst the PitchWars hopefuls about atmosphere. More the point, resources on writing atmosphere. I did some looking about my bookshelf, I googled and I tried to remember what my favorite writing teacher had said on the subject.
And now, I'm going to talk about it.
Firstly, with atmosphere, I believe that much writing is a "monkey see" "monkey do" endeavor. One must read it in order to write it. Dissecting why something works, is much more effective a teacher than anything someone can be told. So I'm going to show you some examples of different atmospheres with similarities and talk a bit about them.
"The library was dark, dusty. Oil lamps gave a bare light from their glass-encased globes. The shelves groaned with the weight of their charges. Little of the battered floral wallpaper was visible under the dozens of devotional images and framed portraits of ecclesiastical men. The floor was just as cramped as the walls, dusty desks piled high with leather bound books and disintegrating scrolls. At one desk, a girl sat in front of a tome.
The yellowed and cracked pages of the manuscript spoke in sharp tones as she turned the pages. The smell of must and leather, of age itself, met the nostrils of the girl in front of the tome. She sat straight and still in her chair. Her crisp black dress and the starched veil over her hair made a sharp contrast to her freckled cheeks and luminous eyes. The green of them was the only bright color besides the worn velvet armchair that Father Price slept in. His snores blew his mustache to and fro in front of his long face."
All right. So, atmosphere! Notice the word choices. Things like tome and ecclesiastical. The specific descriptions: Yellowed and cracked pages and spoke in sharp tones, luminous eyes, of age itself.
The manner of phrase, the words I chose and the descriptions I used are all focused on the same goal. Telling you how this place feels, when this takes place and where it takes place. At no point are you told the year, the time of year, or the time of day or even the place. You know it's a library but any other details are going to be inferred.
You can infer that it's either evening, or that there are no windows in the library, but Father Price is asleep, so perhaps it is evening after all. The library could just be in a school, but the addition of how her clothes are described and the word ecclesiastical, devotional, sets you up for something else.
Most importantly, all of these choices build together to set the mood of the story.
"Loose leaves made trails through the air in the crisp October wind. For those with the nose for such things, the cold wind was tinged with a scent that did not belong amongst the leaves and sweet apples of autumn. It was a thick, hot smell that brought to mind the taste of blood. It was death. Not the soft sunshine of a gentle passing, but the fire and pain of violence.
In the middle of a half-constructed suburb, shells of houses lined with clean white sidewalks that led to nowhere, on a fresh stretch of asphalt yet to be painted with yellow dividing lines, barricades had been set up, tape stretched between them and uniformed officers stationed to keep out the growing crowd of curious and morbid onlookers. The Angel of Death had struck again."
Here we have something completed different atmospherically, though the tone is similar. This is obviously a more modern setting and right away you are told that it's Autumn, and given specific details that tell you what kind of story this is right off the bat. We can infer that this is a mystery, we know a killer stalks the streets. It's very clear what kind of story is being told here.
Both this example and example 1 are for mysteries, but the first one, while setting a mood that's older, is somehow friendlier. Example 2 is more modern and my word choices, sentence patterns and voice are all keyed toward a specific effect.
"I shook the icy rain off of me with a shrug and shudder. Bloody weather. Absolutely horrendous. As if I don't have enough to deal with. The gravediggers were nearly finished now, burying empty boxes in front of a large grey headstone. The mourners were long gone now. Off to the train station, no doubt, to head back into Verreden. Why the Blacks had wished to be buried in Briar’s Gate was no matter to me.
Here lies Reginald and Sara Black, loving parents. Loving parents indeed. They had proven they would do anything to protect her. The heavy stone that marked their grave was carved with ravens. An uncommon family crest, but I’d seen little Harriet and by her dark curls and pale skin it was rather obvious that somewhere in the family line was Raven. Interesting that they’d chosen to commemorate it on the stone. Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs?
I fluffed up my feathers and toed closer to the end of the branch to watch as the last shovelful of dirt crashed down onto the ground, a bit of dark burlap was rolled over the mound.
Time to be going.
I shook off the rain again, spreading wings to take to the air. I found the little girl at the train station with her barrister. I watched her board the train, watched the boy slip on after her. Hmm. I recognized the sort, though not the boy himself. One of the Guard’s strays. Off to slay a Heartless? He looked a bit young for such endeavors. He wouldn’t succeed. Even a more seasoned Guard would have trouble dispatching the little Orphan Black."
This one is in first person, which immediately changes the tone. But this is obviously similar to some degree to the atmosphere of the first. You have some solid world building details here, but you also have atmosphere. It's raining and cold. The narrator is annoyed, curious and--odd. Building the mood here is as dependent on the voice of the character as it is on everything else.
Each of these examples utilizes word choice, description and voice to build the atmosphere. I find that immersion helps. Read books about your setting. Watch movies and TV shows with a similar feeling, listen to music. When you feel immersed, it's a lot easier to write within that setting.
Really look at your word choices. Look at how you described various things and people. Every choice you make will either add to the atmosphere you're building or put holes in it. Language choices are everything.
I'll leave you with some recommended reading.
Writer's Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Michael Knost (I don't know how readily available this is, I believe it was a Kickstarter and I received it as a gift)
Anthology collections in your genre. This is actually super important because it will A: Show you a variety of handlings in a small space and B: Give you something to dissect.
On Writing by Stephen King
Anything by Neil Gaiman, he is a master at atmosphere.