But you don’t have to be a nature writer to need to know how to write about nature. It’s the rare novel that doesn’t at least have some element of nature in it, and writers of all genres need to know how to write about it convincingly, even writers who never get closer to nature than their local city park. Of course, there’s not enough room in a blog column to teach an entire course in nature writing, but here are some tips to make sure your scenes evoke Mother Nature in her finest light, as well as some exercises to get your creative juices flowing:
Use specific, descriptive language. Descriptive, specific language is what distinguishes beautiful prose from the mundane. While this is true for every element of fiction writing, nowhere is it more true than with setting description. Yes, I could have written the sentence, “It was foggy at the river,” as the opening to Chapter 22 of my novel, Redeeming Grace, and readers would have gotten a general idea of the setting. But I didn’t write that. I wrote, “The cool, early autumn air hugged the still-warm sandy shores of the Choptank, enveloping the river in a surreal, steamy fog. Water droplets clung to each blade of grass in the yard, dangling precariously like a precious crystal earring from a dainty lobe. The air smelled sweet, a sticky mixture of fish and pine.” Specific, descriptive language turns a bland sentence into words worth savoring and creates a three-dimensional, color picture in the reader’s mind.
Engage the senses. When you take a hike in an apple orchard in full bloom, you smell the blossoms. When you walk along the ocean shore, you hear gulls overhead and waves crashing on the beach. Make sure your readers can smell, hear, or even taste your nature descriptions. In my novel The Cabin, I could have written: “Corrine walked into the forest,” and left it at that. But I didn’t. What I wrote was, “The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was the same scent she had breathed in every time she walked in the forest, but this time, she could break down the individual essences perfuming the air: rotting rhododendron blossoms mixed with moss-covered granite and cold, crisp water. She had never noticed granite had a scent—like the air during a thunderstorm, vaguely electrical—or that water could smell cold.”
Don’t get carried away with this, of course. You don’t have to engage all five senses at once! But don’t rely only on the visual.
Use unexpected, surprising phrasing and metaphors. A good trick here is, when describing an inanimate object in nature, such as a rock, liken it to something animate. You might write something like, “The granite rock was like a gray whale in the middle of the meadow, swimming in a sea of big blue stem and purple coneflowers.” The rock is inanimate; a gray whale is animate. Doing the opposite works well, too: when describing something living, like an animal or a flower, liken it to an inanimate object: “The flock of Canada geese overhead looked like the Blue Angels doing maneuvers at an air show.” Another trick is to compare something small to something large: “When the hiker wandered too close to her babies, the mother marmot charged like a rhinoceros.”
Do your research. I recently read a lovely book that was set in what today is Turkey several thousand years BCE. The main character had a pet cockatoo. What’s wrong with that? Cockatoos are from Australia. There would have been no cockatoos in Turkey five thousand years ago. If you are writing a nature scene in a work of fiction, please remember to ensure the plants, animals, and weather phenomena you write about actually exist in the place you are writing about. Don’t have grizzly bears attacking tourists in Shenandoah National Park; don’t put triggerfish in the Great Lakes, and don’t set white Christmas stories in Sydney.
Beware of purple prose. Purple prose is prose that is so over the top, so flowery, it breaks the flow of your essay, story, or poem by drawing attention to itself. It often is exaggerated, overly sentimental, and evocative beyond the call of duty. To avoid falling into the purple prose trap, evoke only one or two senses at a time. Use only one metaphor to describe something, not five. In short, don’t get mushy.
Practice, practice, practice. Learning to write about nature (or anything else, for that matter) is no different from mastering any other art form. Picasso’s first painting probably wasn’t a masterpiece. Chopin had to learn to play a scale before he could compose and perform his piano masterpieces. Rudolph Nureyev took dance lessons before he became a world-class ballet dancer. Anything worth doing is worth learning how to do well, and that means practicing!
Ultimately, the best way to learn how to write about nature is to spend time in the woods, on the prairies, at the seashore, or in the garden. Nature is as close as your backyard or city park. Second, read nature writing. Read modern day nature anthologies, like my Observations of an Earth Mage. Read the classics, like Thoreau’s Walden or A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. Read nature poetry. Read novels where nature plays a thematic role, like Moby Dick. Then, go to your keyboard and write!
Smoky Trudeau is the author of the recently released Observations of an Earth Mage, a collection of prose, poetry, and photographs celebrating the beauty and splendor of the natural world. She is also the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin, as well as two books on writing, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. An ardent outdoorswoman with a deep reverence for nature, she lives in California with her husband, daughter, and a menagerie of animals, both domestic and wild, in a ramshackle cottage in the woods overlooking the San Gabriel Valley and the mountains beyond. When she isn’t working, Smoky spends her time hiking in the mountains, camping in the Sierras, splashing in tidepools, and fighting the urge to speak in haiku.