For urban dwellers, nature sits apart. Most of us only see the spare, diminished nature of city parks and backyard gardens. Even these natural settings we relegate to the rear of our consciousness as we focus on the conditions around us, the cars in the street, our work cubical, a much-needed trip to the grocery store. However, even if city writers never see much in the way of nature, we still want to write about it in our novels. Maybe we just want to show a simple slice of metaphorical nature, a gentle changing of the seasons. Or maybe you’ve learn the secrets of other great writers and you want nature unleashed, the stuff of major plot points, stunning story reversals and awe inspiring climaxes. Regardless of your fiction project, at some point nature will come calling at your literary doorstep. The question is will you be ready to answer?
As writers we’re always being encouraged to write what we know, so how can we hope to ensnare readers with believable nature settings without experiencing them? Must we abandon our stories if we’re unwilling or unable to cast ourselves into swift rivers, or storm heaving seas? Since I tend to gravitate toward climate extremes, and enjoy my alive status too much to risk it, I hope not!
I believe we can learn to write about any form of nature, from the benevolent to the catastrophic with a few simple exercises in observation.
Spend some time with Mother Nature’s bounty:
Nothing beats the real thing, so pick up a notebook and get outside. Even if it’s just your own yard at first. Feel the plants in your garden. Turn over bits of wood and find out what bugs crawl around on them. Try to notice nature wherever you go, trust me, it’s out there. If you walk by a huge red lava rock every time you go to the bank, next time touch the boulder. Record what it feels like. Try to describe the color of the rock. Think about where this rock came from, and ask yourself why is the rock here and how did it get here? Did the builder use the rock as a metaphor; maybe the bank wants to convey permanence or stability with this huge ornamental rock. No rocks in your town to study, try to sample strange seasonal produce in the grocery store, what about star fruits, guavas, or prickly pears? Find out where these items grow, what conditions they require. Look up interesting bits of food lore, or harvest festivals. Start thinking about what kind of nature you enjoy seeing. Think in terms of color and shapes, which plants invoke emotions in you and why. I love evergreens because of their smell. I have eight evergreen trees in my yard, and only two deciduous trees. However, I never miss the chance to take a drive to check out the fall colors. What will you see, taste, feel, or hear this week with your fresh perspective?
Try to get into a wild space, overnight if you can manage it:
Call it simple genetics, a holdover from our years as hunter/gatherers, but being outside changes your body chemistry, and hyper tunes your senses. Your heart rate and breathing changes, you can hear everything around you. The scratch of birds nesting, the trickle of water, and the steps of other hikers scream across your eardrums like foghorns after a day or two of total quiet. Your taste buds will change after a few days in the wild. Just a few sun warm berries will explode in your mouth, and you will feel an intense bite on your tongue from a sprig of ice-cold watercress. I’m lucky, I’m surrounded by protected wild spaces and the right weather to enjoy them year round, but wherever you live find a place to soak up some raw nature. Go to the beach and watch waves pound the tide pools, or park yourself by a pond and watch the bird migration through binoculars. Find your spot and just sit quietly for at least an hour. While I do this exercise, I can almost feel the trees growing. My youngest son says he can feel the earth turn in those rare idle moments in the wild. What do you feel in wild?
Get some training from a professional nature observer:
I recommend you let an expert show you around. Most preserves, even ones dead center inside a city have a nature guide who leads walks. They may even have some designed for those with limited mobility, so do some research and book a spot. Let the guide tell you about the geology of the site and the native plants and animals, the big picture of the area, while you also focus in on the details. Know what you’re walking on, get down and pick up rocks. Try to spot animal trails by the crumple of branches and leaves, look for paw tracks in the soft earth or piles of scat. Look at the plants. As long as you’re not in a protected space, pinch off some leaves and rub them between your fingers. Smell them, if the guide gives you permission, taste them. This week my family ate pickleweed for the first time, not a recommended form of nutrients, but wild foods are always memorable experiences and relatively safe when sampled under the supervision of a trained professional. What wild food will you eat this week?
Buy a field guide and hit the path. Before you know it these exercises will help you learn to see nature and give you all the skills you need to write simple nature settings with confidence.
Next week I’ll show you some tips for creating extreme nature settings.
Up Next from Robin… Into the Wild Part II