Pay Attention to the Details in Nature

The first novel I ever wrote was set in West Virginia. I loved the area near the shoulder of the eastern panhandle, the mountains rising and falling like enormous whales in a deep green sea. I got a general sense of the area, but I didn’t pay attention to the details in nature.

When I wrote my novel, I didn’t dig into my setting and learn the names of the plants that grew and flowered in July in that area. I just wrote that trees hung heavy with rain or weeds brushed against a truck. I thought being specific was boring and unnecessary, that it would slow down the storytelling.

Then my freelance editor told me that readers appreciate details as long as I dribble it in and not dump it. Readers might not know exactly what a flowering rhododendron looks like, but if I write “the white blossoms drooped, with the weight of rain”, they have something to hang their imaginations on.

Because my mysteries are set in rural areas, I try to pay attention to the details in nature. My oldest, Bird Boy, has recently discovered the joy of birding. I am learning all about the birds that live and pass through Ohio.

If my character is also a birder, she wouldn’t say “a bird flew by in a blur.” She’d say “the tiny black and yellow blur of a golden-cheeked warbler zipped past my face.” I can even work in the details if my character is a city slicker. “A tiny black and yellow blur passed millimeters from my eyes. It seemed to be a bird. I hoped it wasn’t a typical of the wasps around here.”

Nothing beats walking the natural setting of a story. But if that’s impossible, or I need to conduct further research after I’ve visited an area, I have a few sources I turn to. I’m old-fashioned. I go to books first for my research.

Field guides are invaluable for checking on the appearance, habitat, and growing habits of plants and animals. Another great source are the magazines published by state departments of natural resources. We subscribed to ones from Ohio and West Virginia. I’ve learned so much from reading these publications.

For more inspiration from nature, click here to read my post on how weather lore can provide writing inspiration.

Do you pay attention to the details in nature? How can you work them into your stories?

Monday Sparks — Writing Prompts: Spring Haiku

springw-316535_1280This month, my theme is poetry and figurative language. Here’s my haiku to celebrate the new season. IF you write a haiku, feel free to share it below in the comments.

Reaching, stretching, shoots

Push through darkness for one chance

To grasp a sunbeam.

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 — 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?

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