Monday, May 6, 2013

2 Atmosphere in a Southern Gothic by Tessa Gratton

Hello Southland Booth!

Thanks for the invitation to participate in this carnival! I’m thrilled to be here talking about Southern Gothic. It’s such a lush, disturbing genre, how could it not be one of my favorites?

There’s an idea that gets passed around among writers and readers, that a good setting becomes a character itself. I think that couldn’t be more true – especially in Southern Gothic, a genre rooted very firmly in setting. It’s even in the name of the genre itself!

Southern Gothic novels are usually dripping with atmosphere. They’re mysterious and strange, with decay seeping through the shadows, derelict old buildings that mirror the crumbling traditions of the past, and sinister imagery. What does it mean to make this intense setting into a character?

It has to directly affect the characters and plot.

You don’t want your setting to be merely the background. You want it to shape your protagonist and antagonist, your secondary characters, the motivations that drive your novel. You want it to be part of the stakes of the novel.

Think about where you live. How does it affect your goals? Do you want to stay forever, do you long to escape? Do the mountains hem you in? Does the ocean tease you with adventure? What about where you were born? How did that make you exactly who you are?

Those are the questions we think about when creating setting and characters – the two are inextricably linked.

My novel BLOOD MAGIC revolves heavily around the crumbling old cemetery at the edge of town. It divides the two heroes, literally and metaphorically, and I built it to not just be any cemetery, but to represent the heart of the tale. I not only gave it specific details, but I let the two heroes Nick and Silla react to it differently. That builds layers into the setting, shows that there isn’t only one way to view it. Nick sees it as a dangerous place, but he’s drawn to the excitement of his past. Silla finds peace there, and also great sorrow, and learns to feel safe in the cemetery.

For that to feel genuine to readers, I can’t just write what the place looks like and smells like. I have to show how people react to it. Why does it matter that Silla spends so much time there? What about it excites Nick? I have to convince my readers that if this cemetery didn’t exist, neither would the story. That Nick and Silla would be entirely different characters without it, just like they’d be different characters without their parents, their culture, or each other.

This all goes for any setting of course, not just Southern Gothic. But with a genre to firmly rooted in place – it’s specifically about the dark center of old America, about this tangle of history and blood that you can’t find anywhere else in the world – you have to be very aware of the interplay between setting and character.

You give your setting life by making its heart beat.

About the Author

When Tessa was a kid, she wanted to be a wizard. Or a paleontologist. Maybe both. She’s neither now, but magic and monsters are still her favorite things.

Born in Okinawa, Japan, while her Dad was on duty with the US Navy, Tessa moved around throughout her childhood and traveled even more. She’s lived in Japan, California, Kansas, and England, and visited 4 continents.

After graduating from the University of Kansas in 2003 with a degree in Gender Studies, she went on to graduate school for a Master’s in the same. Halfway through, she ditched the program in favor of the blood, violence, and drama of Anglo-Saxon and Germanic epic poetry and to focus on her writing. Tessa doesn’t have a graduate degree, but she did translate her own version of Beowulf!

Despite having traveled all over the world, she settled in Kansas where the sunsets are all in Technicolor, with her partner, two cats, and a mutant mutt named Grendel.

Visit Tessa's website
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About the Book

Draw a circle... place a dead leaf in the center... sprinkle some salt... recite a little Latin... add a drop of blood...

Maybe that last part isn’t exactly simple. Yet somehow it feels right to Silla Kennicott. And nothing in her life has felt remotely right since her parents’ horrific deaths. She’s willing to do anything to uncover the truth about her family—even try a few spells from the mysterious book that arrived on her doorstep ... and spill some blood.

The book isn’t the only recent arrival in Silla’s life. There’s Nick Pardee, the new guy next door who may have seen Silla casting a spell. She’s not sure what he saw and is afraid to find out. But as they spend more time together, Silla realizes this may not be Nick’s first encounter with Blood Magic. Brought together by a combination of fate and chemistry, Silla and Nick can’t deny their attraction. And they can’t ignore the dark presence lurking nearby—waiting to reclaim the book and all its power.

You can win a signed copy of Blood Magic by playing our game here!


  1. Thanks for sharing. Establishing a vivid setting is one of the things I struggle with. Read Blood Magic and Tessa did a fantastic job creating her setting.

  2. Thanks for this post, Tessa! I especially love the reminder that it the physical description of the place that creates the atmosphere, it's the reactions of the characters that makes the biggest difference.


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