How would I describe, in two sentences, the atmosphere in Paris at the beginning of the story by E.T.A. Hoffman, "Mademoiselle de Scudery?"
"Mademoiselle de Scudery" is a historical mystery novella by E.T.A. Hoffmann describing a mysterious crime wave in Paris and the people, nobility and commoner alike, which it affects.
As the story starts, Paris has been gripped by a powerful crime wave, with wealthy nobility attacked and often murdered, with their lavish jewelery stolen from the unconscious or corpse. Hoffmann, who spent months researching the styles and events of the 17th Century, describes both the people and the old Paris in a way that is evocative of the times while still being a compelling story. In the opening, Hoffman writes:
...she and her mistress were left in the house without any further protection. All the outrages burglaries, thefts, and murders -- which were then so common in Paris, crowded upon her mind...
(Hoffman, "Mademoiselle de Scudery," ebooks.adelaide.edu.au)
This narration, combined with the furious knocking on the door, suggests a paranoid Parisian mindset, filled with tension. The knocking, which is out of character for normal visitors, creates a suspicion in the reader that La Martinière, the maid, is in danger for her life. Her worries reinforce that suspicion, as she attempts to warn the stranger away with lies about help, and she is terrified to see the stranger's stiletto knife. To this end, the stranger is excited, frightened, and forceful, while La Martinière is steadfast in her protection of her mistress; this suggests that while panic may be at the forefront of each individual Parisian, they remain as individuals protective of their honor as humans.
For the two-sentence description of the atmosphere in Paris, examine the text for words that suggest a feeling that would permeate both the people and the times: paranoia, suspicion, fright, and worry are all described by the author. This is enhanced by the alien nature of the crimes to the ordinary citizens, who feel trapped and traumatized; their fear encourages the killer(s), whose actions in turn increase their fear. Look for strong descriptors and evocative statements, and focus on how the characters in the story are feeling at that moment in their lives, rather than on how the story strikes the reader.