Seeing with New Eyes

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 Several of them lamented the lack of action, so I was fully prepared to yawn my way through this historical document; it certainly would not be the first time that has happened to a writer of historical fiction.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

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About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.

Comments

  1. says

    What a graceful and touching post, and it make me want to read this material.

    I am a passionate and involved gardener and nature observer. It teaches patience and quiet and lends joy to nearly every undertaking.

    The novel I’ve read recently that does this extraordinarily well is The Significance of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.

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  2. says

    Thank you, Barbara. I just finished SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, and I agree wholeheartedly. Until that novel, I never knew I could become obsessed with moss.

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  3. says

    Dear Erika~

    A wonderful post, and laden with sound advice. It IS a pleasure to tune out of technology and tune into the rhythm of our natural surroundings.

    I love crows–or ‘rooks’–and find them to be smart, crafty, beautiful creatures. Usually I find them in three’s, my favorite number, and I wonder where they go after they walk around my backyard for awhile and then suddenly lift off and flit into the trees.

    Thank you for an enlightening post.

    warm wishes,
    Paul

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    • says

      Thank you, Paul. One of my writing critique partners has a fascination with crows and encourages my “relationship” with them. I also just finished reading BELLMAN & BLACK by Diane Setterfield–a delightfully creepy and fascinating ghost story with the birds at its heart. Good stuff.

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  4. says

    Great post, Erika. The journals of May Sarton (Journal of a Solitude, House by the Sea) are wonderful for appreciating Nature and human nature. Sarton isn’t a popular author anymore these days, but her perspective on the fall of sunbeams, drifting snowflakes, the bloom of a lily, or soaring birds (this “world of light” ) and how it affects writing is an inspiration. She is my go-to source when I need to stop and reflect.

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  5. says

    Wonderful observations. I love “Be Still,” and need to practice it more often. Since we moved to the woods, I’ve become fascinated by the large crow population here. They’re very social, and listening to “a murder” is always great fun. I’ve noticed that if one strays from a session, others keep tabs on the one that left the area, calling to him/her and waiting for the distant reply.

    I write in an ancient historical setting, so I’ve tried to remain conscious of how nature and weather affect my characters. For example, since we moved to our remote cottage in the woods, I’ve been fascinated by the natural phases of night. We have no streetlights and no nearby neighbors. Every night, taking the dog out for the final time, I try to note the moon, stars, cloudiness of the sky, amount of natural light, etc. I adore moon-shadows. I feel like I can better imagine how my characters might see things and behave at night than when I lived in the urban wash of artificial light.

    Lovely post. Thanks for the wonderful suggestions, and happy holidays, Erika!

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  6. says

    Thank you so much for a lovely post. Nature is humbling and awe inspiring. It’s the perfect backdrop for any story because it shapes and mold characters and the communities they live in.

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  7. says

    Thank you for such a lovely post. I think Ron Rash (Serena, The Cove) has a wonderful way of weaving nature into his tales, seemingly a character in itself as it shifts and changes and touches his characters.

    While writing my own debut, I reached a certain nirvana which I have since tried to maintain. With a setting in 1918 Virginia, I placed the fictional town in a national forest first formed in the period (the formation of which serves as subtle backdrop to the tale). Living in DC, I would routinely drive out from the city before dawn to avoid traffic so that I could write among the forest, retreating in time mentally. Even while writing from home, I found myself increasingly wandering to Rock Creek Park, a surprisingly rural escape surrounded by a thoroughly urban landscape. Within the park I found miles of forested trails, gurgling creeks, even remnant old farmsteads and mills which have been reclaimed by nature since the close of the Civil War.

    The experience awakened my senses and reminded me that echoes of the past that lie within our grasp if we but open our eyes. But what is most surprising is that even in starting my new novel, which is thoroughly modern, I have found myself drawing inspiration from those same habits. Because as you have explained so well, observing nature exposes one to character, conflict and emotion, essential elements to any compelling story.

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  8. says

    Well said, Erika. My pastor delivered a sermon years ago about experiencing the wonders of of the world. Most of us, as we grow older, focus on what requires our attention, never turning to see what is around us. A writer cannot let that happen. I have an advantage here because I’m easily distracted. At 46, I still stop and watch a flock of geese flying overhead (in Michigan, geese are almost considered pests). When I hunt, I’m more excited about the flying squirrel I cam nose-to-nose with than the deer I manage to kill (a rare occurrence anyway). I feel sorry for those who stop staring at the common things of this world in childlike wonder. By all means, put the cell phone away. Unless you plan on filling 300 pages with pithy facebook posts, it’s taking time away from what’s truly important for the writer.

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    • says

      I love this Ron.

      I was thinking that I do have to make one technological exception; I think Instagram has re-instructed (many of) us to focus on natural beauty. Whether my friends’ photos show a blooming rose, a snowy path, or a child coming off the soccer field after a goal, there is an almost childlike reacquaintance with wonder.

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  9. says

    What a perfect post to start the day. One of the most essential components of our craft is fresh perspective, and I find it particularly daunting sometimes. Yet there’s nature, right outside my window, serving it up by the ladleful, every single day. Thank you for sharing your observations. I want to read the Common Journal too!

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  10. says

    Lovely post Erika. Even though I write mysteries (murder mostly), I find that nature is a vital backdrop to both the words and my life. Being disabled I don’t get the chance to enjoy being outdoors as much but having grown up in the countryside it is always there in my mind. Thank you for reminding me to give it more space in my life.

    P.S: Always been fascinated by black birds, especially ravens ~ my favourite author Tolkien made them ancient and noble.

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  11. says

    I love your piece here for many reasons, especially for the elegance with which you’ve shared it all. I’ve always been rooted to nature and adore time outdoors to simply be. Madeleine L’Engle is my favorite writer for how her Crosswicks journals often talking about time spent by the brook on their property. Somehow, Nature influences and enriches creative work. Beautiful words, Erika. Thank you!

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    • says

      And thank YOU for being the one to introduce me to L’Engle. Her meditations on nature and craft have enriched my work so much.

      Your photos are also a big inspiration to me.

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  12. says

    This was perfectly timed for me, Erika, as I embark on the process of shaping the second draft of my second book, a novel based on true events. It is easy to slip into “telling” when sharing the events of one’s life, and if those events were traumatic, easy to skim over their surface.

    In many ways this is my last chance to sit with this material, arguably the most important of my life, and glean from it all of its power—and that will be in the accumulation of detail. No skimming for me in the next few months—diving is what is needed, and you’ve reminded me that while I’m underwater, I should open my eyes and take it all in.

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  13. says

    Thank you for the lovely post about nature – and some of my favorite birds.

    Ravens – another name – have several roles in the novel I’m writing, and one in particular is the pet/familiar (with its own aviary) of a beautiful and glamorous Hollywood actress whose shiny black hair mimics the glossy coat of her bird – and whose voice has parallels with the croaky deep quality of the bird.

    I found it useful to assign a totem animal to each of the three main characters – and spent a lot of time before selecting them. Lightly, of course, but over the course of the novel, the appropriateness of each animal helps with the character’s choices. It’s a layer of richness most readers may not notice, but pleases the writer greatly.

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  14. Tina says

    What a lovely post with some excellent advice. I especially enjoyed being reminded to Be Still. (Be still and know that I am.)
    I liked the clawed creatures in your post: the hawk, the rooks, the lovely mother.
    Nature is significant in my WIP, which takes place in the rough Rocky Mountains of Idaho and a civilized valley below.
    I always thought that crows were messengers who traveled from this world to the other.
    (BTW, old rose bushes are not just faded beauties, they have other purposes in nature.)

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    • says

      Tina, I love the contrast of the rough Rocky Mountains and the civilized valley. There will be rich symbolism through nature in that setting.

      Thank you for your comments.

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  15. says

    Many of my childhood favorites had a rich sense of place. The works of Mary Stewart, Jack London, Jan de Hartog, and Gene Stratton Porter come to mind. (Especially Girl of the Limberlost.)

    Between them and my father, an avid gardner and naturalist, I couldn’t escape childhood without the natural world forming an important part of my life. As you’ve commented, that’s not true of many people.

    The ToolMaster and I were recently in Houston. While walking through an outdoor mall one evening, we noticed small, black birds congregating in the parking lot, flitting from tree to rooftop and back again. There were hundreds of them. (I have a cell phone video, if you’d care to watch.) Though it looked like a scene from The Birds, it didn’t feel in the least ominous; their birdsong sounded like happy chatter. But no one–not even the employees–could tell us what species they were, though they reportedly congregated there each sunset, arriving via a water park.

    Beautiful post, Erika.

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    • says

      Jan, how nice that your father instilled that into you from an early age. What a gift.

      Your story about the black birds reminds me of the post going around social media last week of the sound of crickets slowed down. It has an eerie, angelic quality.

      Thanks for your comments.

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  16. says

    i’ve always felt the setting in my stories was as important as my characters, each feeding the other; so very glad to have read your musings on nature, it is interesting, esp as you express them

    also followed the link to your hemingway excerpt; i usually find stories about famous writers or artists either very good, or very off somehow; yours was thoroughly enjoyable; loved the way this small excerpt read like a self-contained short story, the peach bringing round so many details of the girl’s life, and her interview

    all the best wishes, thanks so much erika :-)

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    • says

      Sadly, I don’t think you could, Robin. I had to purchase a very expensive out of print copy. The original is at the Morgan Library in New York, but I can’t quite publicize the subject just yet… ;)

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  17. says

    I thought for certain that an 18th century account (part of my research) of a settler captured by natives would be dull as the writer who took the subject’s account wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities. Instead, the language is stark and often harsh, and between the lines is a lot of sorrow and shock. I’m glad you found a connection to your material as well. :) As for patience, gardens and trees have taught me that seasons bring change with them, and no season lasts forever. :) Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  18. says

    I simply love watching nature; always have. Turtles and birds are my top favorites.
    I’m planning on doing a children’s fantasy series (Rittawak Tails), and animals are the primary characters.
    The other day we had a red-tailed hawk land on the sign next to our driveway. My husband spotted him first. It was windy and chilly, so I didn’t know if he needed to rest a bit and couldn’t get his “feet” comfortable on the edge of the metal sign; or was simply fluffing his feathers, trying to warm up. I ran back into the house to get my camera. As soon as I clicked it on he swooped off and disappeared. I hadn’t planned on using a hawk, but I just might now. He was a gorgeous sight flying!
    The 30-foot (my husband says 10) black snake hanging on the side of the barn, partially camouflaged by the roof’s shadow, is one of the characters. Her name is Clara and she loves “jewelry”. She has something stuck around her neck, but I haven’t figured out what yet. In an email someone sent me ages ago, an animal had the plastic from a 6-pack stuck around its head; Clara’s too big for that.

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