Writing Tip — Animal-Inspired Characters

great-blue-heronw-744257_1280Of course animals have inspired some of the most beloved characters in literature — Charlotte, Mr. Toad, the Cat in the Hat. Although my characters are people, I still find animals as writing inspiration.

Because my main character Junior in my YA novel lives in the mountains of West Virginia, he is more attuned to nature than many 16-year-old Americans. This aspect of his personality allows me describe other characters in comparison with animals. This helps my writing in two ways: first, it assists the reader in getting inside the head of my main character, and second, it gives the reader a “handle”, a short description she can grasp quickly.

When Junior says a man reminds him of a giant toad, that’s a handle that immediately carries with it a certain image to each reader.  It also tells the reader something about how Junior thinks of the man.

Animals can inspire human characters in other ways. Where I live, lots of turkey vultures make their home here between March and November. Lots of them. If I spot the outline of a large bird in the sky, 9 out of 10 times it’s a vulture, or buzzard, as I like to call them. I would love to build a minor character on the appearance of a buzzard. A narrow, reddish, bald head protruding from hunched shoulders. The character would have to wear something black and bulky, like a sweater, to imitate feathers.

Or a character based on a great blue heron. I’ve seen many of these on the river near my home. They walked in a stilted gait and can remain so still, that it’s hard to believe they are alive. Then when they see a fish, they flash into action. I can see a very thin character with a very deliberate but awkward way of walking. Also the character would be quiet and still, not drawing attention to herself until she needs to.

Comparing people to birds would be perfect for a main character whose hobby was bird watching. Or if you have a main character who is crazy about dogs, he could see people in those terms. A woman who is “as regal as an Afghan hound” or “beautiful and vacant as an Irish setter.” A small child whose constant questions were “as incessant as the yipping of a Chihuahua.”

How have animals inspired your writing?

Writing Tip — Weather Lore as Writing Inspiration

caterpillarw1-1572858_1280Many of us, at least in North America, have heard the weather lore of seeing how fuzzy the coat of a “woolly bear” caterpillar is to determine how severe the upcoming winter would be. Fuzzier coat, worse winter.

When I was with my grandmother as a kid, and the wind blew hard enough to turn up the paler, underside of the leaves, she always said a storm was coming. I don’t know how scientifically true that observation is, but to this day, when strong winds turn the leaves bottoms up, I check the sky.

Another bit of nature lore I’ve discovered on my own is the return of the turkey vultures to our area. Every year, during the last week of February or the first week of March, the turkey vultures fly in from South America, a sure sign of spring on the way. This year, they returned, and April turned out to be the fourth coldest on record. Although it still felt like winter, it was spring by the calendar. I wonder if it confused the vultures.

If you have a story set in nature, research the area’s weather lore for writing inspiration. It can enhance a character who lives close to nature. Or it may provide a spark for speculative fiction. For example, if I set a story in my home county, I could have my main character notice that the turkey vultures don’t return on time or not at all. It signals some devastating natural disaster.

A great source of these kinds sayings from Southern Appalachia are the Foxfire books. Begun in 1966, Foxfire is a magazine still written by high school students on the heritage of Southern Appalachia. To learn more, visit their website.

In the first book compiled from these magazines is a chapter on “Weather Signs”. Some of the advice it gives for forecasting the weather are:

  • The winter will be harsh if:
    • “squirrels begin gathering nut early (middle or late September)
    • “beaver lodges have more logs.”
    • “hoot owls call late in the fall”
    • “miller moths hit the screen trying to get it”
  • Rain comes when:
    • “if the horns of the moon point down.”
    • “if leaves show their backs.”
    • “if birds fly low.”

Any of these old sayings could spark a story. What if you invent a world where all these sayings are true? People are trained to be weather lore forecasters. The most gifted ones hold powerful positions in government. Or what if just one of the sayings is true? What if “woolly bear” worms really could forecast the weather? Farmers would raise enormous colonies of the worms to sell. Some species would be better than others at predicting weather. Thieves might steal the best kind to sell to businesses that depend on the weather.

What weather signs have your heard of?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: What is Your Favorite Nature Experience?

peoplew-2564708_1280As we wrap up the nature theme for the month, I wanted to share one of my  favorite nature experiences. I’ve already written about some of mine: walking outside on full moon nights and hunting for seashells off the coast of North Carolina.

Another favorite nature experience is also one of the easiest for me to get to. When the river we live next to goes down, I wade across with my kids to an island situated between the river and a creek. My kids fish, look for crawdads, build dams, and generally mess around. I take a beach chair, enjoy the breeze, the quiet, and write. It’s vacation just a few feet from home.

What is your favorite nature experience?

Writing Tip — Full Moon Night as Writing Inspiration

naturew-3194001_1280Some of my favorite experiences in nature occurred on clear nights with a full moon. If you haven’t been out on a night like that, with no artificial light nearby, I highly recommend finding an opportunity to do so. Artificial lights dampen or kill the wonder of a full moon night.

Since we live in the county, I’ve had chances to venture out in these nights bathed in moonlight. What catches my attention first are the shadows. The moonlight is so strong it casts shadows. The second thing I notice is how far I can see. On typical nights, the woods that line the edge of our property are just a wall of darkness. Under the full moon, I can pick out details. And then I become fascinated with the color. Silver is the best way to describe it. It illuminates but very differently from sunlight, so I can see but not quite.

“Not quite” sums up a full moon night. I can see better than a normal night, but not quite like in the daytime. My yard is recognizably familiar but not quite the same in the silver light.

I had the wonderful blessing to see the ocean under a full moon. As well as casting our shadows across the sand, the moonlight transformed the waves into rippling sheets of metal. They appeared solid as the hit the shore. That experience was so intense that God used it to lift me from a four-month depression.

So what stories are appropriate for this “not quite” setting? The strangeness of it should be a backdrop for a wonderfully positive scene or a horribly negative one. It can’t be the setting for run-of-the-mill action.

As much as I enjoy moonlight, I can see how it can be unsettling and even sinister to people because of it’s ability to be a weird imitation of day. One of my favorite picture books, The Magic Woodbegins with an illustration of a boy sitting under a full moon. He heads into the dark woods and mets a creature who at first is disturbing and then turns dreadful. For a positive approach, read Chapter 22 “The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams.

How would you use a full moon night a story?

Writing Tip — Writing about Natural Light

naturew-3294681_1280One aspect of nature that’s always caught my attention are all the variations of natural light. How sunlight, and moonlight, illuminates the landscape often inspires settings for me. Writing about the natural light of a setting can add tension, foretell events, or soothe readers as they come to the end of your story. Below are some of the ways natural light inspires me.

Golden summer evening: Everyone has experienced how wonderfully relaxing a summer evening bathed in golden light is. It seems like the perfect setting for a low-key conclusion to a story, and that’s the setting for last chapter of my novel.

Bright sunrise: This kind of sunrise seems like a good setting for an upbeat ending to a story. It also makes a powerful contrast if most of you story has taken place at night, especially if the action has been harrowing for the characters.

Cloudy sunrise: If the day doesn’t start brightly, it seems to be a harbinger for a bad day. A cloudy sunrise could kick off a story, foretelling that things won’t go well for the main characters that day.

Bright, clear day: My mood almost always lifts when the humidity is so low that sky is clear of clouds and at its most brilliant blue. It seems like a day overflowing with possibilities. A great way to start an adventure. Or I can use the day was a counterpoint. My main character wants to get out into the gorgeous day and is trapped inside. Nature itself seems to be against her, like the other reasons which are forcing her to stay inside.

Weird light: Unusual weather circumstances can affect the light strangely. One spring morning when my kids were small, I woke up after my husband had already gone to work. The blinds were drawn in my bedroom, so my first view of the day was when I stepped out of my bedroom. Through the windows in my living room, I saw the morning sky was yellow. My first thought: TORNDADO! Immediately, I turned on the TV and found out that severe weather was passing. I can’t remember if the storms produced tornadoes but we didn’t experience anything more than normal thunderstorms.

Unusual weather like the yellow sky calls for dramatic action. My main character could be struggling toward a goal and a storm can be an obstacle or the symbol of obstacles he must over come. Or it could be the backdrop for the ultimate clash between to strong-willed characters.

How does natural lighting affect you? Do you see it as another element in your settings?

 

 

Writing Tip — Setting the Mood with Nature

fishingw-1245979_1280The best way I know for setting the mood with nature in my writing is to experience nature myself. That’s why I’ve visited the location of my novel, so I could get first-hand observations of the natural world in which my characters live.

Being out in nature often changes my mood, usually for the better. But to write about it, at some point, I have to stand back and analyze the experience. Here are two ways to pick up on how nature affects moods.

What’s my first impression?

Often, a natural setting changes my mood before I realize how it did this. If I walk outside my house at night and instantly become uneasy, I may have to stop and think what exactly has produced the anxiety. Is something out of place and it makes me uncomfortable? Is there an unusual stimulation — sound, smell — that disconcerts me? Once I pinpoint the cause, which is usually nothing serious, I appreciate my surroundings.

What’s my last impression?

Sometimes, an outdoor experience is so all-consuming at the moment it occurs that I have to leave it before I can reflect on it. For me, that usually means I am enjoying myself. I love sledding, but I would ruin the fun if I put on my writer’s hat and tried to take mental notes about it while I was sledding. At home, at my desk, is the time for analysis.

Once I have a storehouse of natural experiences to pull from, I can apply those experiences to my characters to reveal qualities, quirks, or weaknesses about them.

One fun way for setting the mood with nature is to have the same character affected in opposite ways by the same aspect of nature. In my novel, my main character loves early morning runs, but after staying up most of one night, he finds the calls of the early birds irritating during the following morning. Or you can have nature set opposite moods in two different characters. A night hike through the mountains terrifies city person while her rural friend finds it invigorating.

For a writing exercise, use the picture above. Create two characters who experience the mist on the lake in two different ways.

How do you use nature to set the mood in your writing?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Watership Down

watership downShortly after I was married, I finally got around to reading Watershed Down. My dad had always been a big fan of it, and I remember seeing an animated movie based on it when I was a kid. I distinctly remember how mean the bad guys were. I’m not sure why it took me so long to try it myself, but once I did I was hooked. Few novels held my attention from beginning to end, but this one not only held it but refused to let it go. I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I had to take a break.

You wouldn’t think a book about rabbits in Great Britain trying to establish a new warren would be so engrossing, but it is. Ten bucks set out from Sandleford Warren when Fiver, who is a seer, convinces them that something horrible is going to happen to their warren. The bucks, led by Fiver’s brother Hazel, endure many hardships, including “elil”, the rabbit word for animals who attack rabbits. They also encounter a warren that is really just a place for people to fatten up rabbits.

The buck survive to found a warren on Watership Down and turn their attention to getting does. This problem leads them to confront General Woundwort, the tyrannical chief rabbit of a warren run like a military dictatorship. This warren is overcrowded with does who are willing to leave, but the General, greedy for power, won’t let them.

Hazel, his second-in-command Bigwig, and the other bucks hatch a plot to help the does escape, which ultimately leads to General Woundwart launching an invasion of Watershed Down.

I chose this book for my month on writing about nature because Richard Adams so wonderfully combines the rabbits’ natural instincts with his world-building. Mr. Adams has invented a mythology, complete with well-known tales, and a language for his rabbits. He gives most of the rabbits distinct personalities. Hazel is the sure and steady leader. Fiver is the high-strung seer. Bigwig is bluff, big-hearted, and the best fighter. Blackberry is the smart one with the most ingenious ideas.

But he also has them act like rabbits. The bucks need does. The overcrowding in the General’s warren is so bad that pregnant does reabsorb their kits. Rabbits only swim if they must and dislike getting wet.

The bulk of the story takes place in May and June, and Mr. Adams’s descriptions of the countryside are so vivid, I can almost smell the dirt and budding plants. One way he does this is by being very specific in his descriptions.

“Only a few fading patches of pale yellow still showed among the dog’s mercury and oak-tree roots.”

“A hundred yards away … ran the brook, no more then three feet wide, half choked with kingcups, watercress, and blue brookline.”

When Bigwig is sent to help the does escape from the General’s warren, a storm is brewing, making all the rabbits nervous. It breaks just as Bigwig and the does make a break for it.

What stories have you read that use nature in a way you love?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Writing About Wildlife Encounters

skunkw-1591309_1280Since I recently had a unique experience with wild animals on a walk near my house, writing about wildlife encounters seemed like a suitable prompt because my theme this month is nature.

Last week, I went on an evening walk on the road I live on. We live in the country, the road is not heavily traveled and parallels a river. I was enjoying the coolness of the evening beneath the shade of the towering trees when I glanced to my right and found a skunk staring at me from the ditch beside the road. It was less the five feet from me.

My heart ramped up its pace but my feet, fortunately, did not. Keeping the same gait, I crossed to the other side of the road and continued walking. The skunk stayed on its side of the road. I couldn’t remember, from watching nature programs with my kids, the range of a skunk’s spray. Still, as I head north, I breathed a sigh of relief.

That’s when I saw the second skunk. One the same side of the road as the first skunk, maybe a hundred feet away, it was also snuffling about in the ditch beside the road. I stopped and stared. Should I risk passing the second skunk and finish my walk? What if there was a third? And how would I get home? Walking home the same way seemed foolish, and the only other route would take a long time.

But if I turned around, I’d still have to pass the first skunk. Being only a few feet from it hadn’t scare it, but I didn’t want to test my luck again. To be completely safe, my only choice was to plunge down the river bank and make my way from through snarls of invasive bushes and poison ivy. Since the evening was cool, I was wearing pants and a long-sleeved blouse, which would protect me.

Digging my tennis shoes into the muddy bank, I hiked south. It crossed my mind that there could be skunks along the river bank, but I decided to follow the theory that the skunk you see is more dangerous than the one you imagine.

The river bank proved to be the safest route. I returned home, muddy but unskunked, much to the relief of my family.

What wildlife encounters have your had?

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