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?

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?

 

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