I had been “warned” by biographers that the Common Journal of the subjects of my new novel was a bit of a bore. Several of them lamented the lack of action, so I was fully prepared to yawn my way through this historical document; it certainly would not be the first time that has happened to a writer of historical fiction.
Imagine my surprise when the pages of the journal had me so entranced that I was late to appointments, meetings, and bed because of my obsession with it. The document revealed more about my quaint transcendentalists than any of the academic works over which I had pored. Not only that, but their musings on nature were so profound, and so knitted to their characters and relationship, I was as rapturous over the progress of the vegetable garden as they were.
Something else happened in this pre-writing phase: I learned to see the world with new eyes, which improved my writing. Here are three things I learned that I hope will assist you in your craft.
1. Be still.
When angry, it is good advice to stop and count to ten before unleashing one’s tirade. I would suggest that ceasing activity to think and breathe would improve many areas of life, particularly your writing life.
When I hit a red light or stand in line at the grocery store, I am inclined to pull out my phone and do a manic check of my email and social media accounts. What I find that I am missing is the time I used to spend watching people and nature. It takes determination for those of us addicted to our mobile devices, but when you leave your phone in your pocket you encounter the most fascinating things.
Just this week I saw a hawk track and attack a vole. Perhaps you don’t want to see such a thing, but I assure you, there is satisfaction in watching a bird of prey successfully hunt. I also saw a seemingly gentle and lovely woman wrap her fingers around her son’s arm like a claw and get in his face, hissing at him through clenched teeth. It was more terrifying than watching the hawk, but it gave me character ideas.
2. Surprise your reader.
Since reading Sylvia Plath, I have had an inward terror of black birds, crows, rooks as she called them, because they are harbingers of death. The subjects in the Common Journal discuss the birds at length, and even remark that standing beneath a tree of black birds, listening to their active cacophony, they realized that what they had always perceived as a nuisance actually took on the spirit of a lively debate. I took this lesson to the outdoors and listened to three black birds who often roost on my fence. While they did not “speak” while I stared them down, I felt a shift in my feelings toward them. I thought that while they made me nervous (harbingers of death that they are), I would tolerate them if they would tolerate me, and felt that we reached a feeling of mutual respect. When I walked away, they began chattering, which made me smile instead of run.
This shift reminded me to bring out the unexpected in my work in progress. If black birds often have negative connotations, perhaps they should mean the opposite to a character. Perhaps they could foreshadow good, and that which seems lovely and gentle could be the true antagonist in the work. Surprising the reader keeps her reading, after all.
3. Seek Nature’s Wisdom.
The oldest thing on this planet is this planet. If one could assert that age brings wisdom, there is a great deal of it to be found by observing nature and applying its truths to fiction.
Nature’s greatest lesson is, perhaps, impermanence. The day follows the night; the seasons recur each year, living things come into existence and die. In the Common Journal, the author waxes poetic about the craggy nature of old rose bushes, and how such things meant only for beauty should die at their peak, never fading to the eye of the beholder. He then, naturally, applies this to human beings in a sad and lovely musing.
Nature speaks a universal and timeless language. Whether your novel is set in the American South during the Civil War, India during its independence, or a dystopian future planet, re-learning how to observe nature and society, turning those observations over to surprise the reader, and grounding theme in the wisdom of Nature will enrich your writing.
Have you had this experience? Has observing nature and society taught you anything about your work in progress? Is there a novel which does this particularly well that you might recommend?
*Photo Courtesy of Sampok at Deviant.Art.com