Unless your writing is completely grounded in urban grit, sooner or later you’ll find yourself relying on nature. You may have a character who gardens or simply likes staring out the window at a garden – or a forest, hills, parks, sea, or desert. Your plot may need a tornado, flood, forest fire, hurricane, blizzard, or ice storm. You may want nature to reinforce the mood of your story or characters. Or maybe a character just needs to take a walk.
The key to any good description is to capture the idiosyncratic details – the handful of features that make a person or a place what it is, that capture its character. This is a lot easier to do with people and human-created spaces, since most of the details were put there by individuals, who can be pretty idiosyncratic. The details that make up a natural scene come from a lot of different directions, which makes it harder to pick out the ones that define the scene.
But it’s not only that nature has a lot of moving parts. The character of a natural scene changes from moment to moment. We’re in the throes of autumn here in New England, and the foliage has a completely different feel in bright sunlight – when the colors are all vibrant and on the surface, like the paint used in elementary school classrooms – and on overcast days – when the trees seem to glow from within.
So there is no substitute for the hard work of actual observation. Go to the places you want to describe and spend some time there, watching them change and develop. Learn to read the moods of the landscape, to understand it as deeply as you understand your characters. At the very least, you’ll avoid glaring mistakes like having daffodils and roses in bloom at the same time.
And, as always, pay attention to all of your senses. Right now, the idiosyncrasies of life in the front yard involve not only the colors that draw crowds of leaf peepers. Autumn is also there in the distant cry of large flocks of geese, so high up they are only a V-shaped line of noisy dots. It’s in the occasional crackle as a squirrel, intent on filling its winter larder, drops an acorn or beechnut to the ground. It’s in the spicy smell of growing drifts of leaves.
Of course, it’s not always possible to immerse yourself in the natural scene you need to describe. Most of us can’t afford a trip to the rain forest or the tundra in order to get a couple of paragraphs of description just right. But even where you need to rely on imagination more, keep your imagination grounded in fact wherever possible. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, set in an extensively imagined landscape, Tolkien kept track of the phases of the moon, which always aligned with the passage of time.
So, if you need to set part of your story somewhere exotic and out of reach, ask the internet – is there any part of the planet that doesn’t show up in a video somewhere? Study images taken at different times of the year and place yourself in them in your imagination. Talk to people who have been there and ask what details stuck with them the most. I spent a summer in Thailand once – long story – and one of the details that’s still with me is the way that, when you chop down a rubber tree, little balls of rubber sap get stuck in your hair. That and my host’s pet monkey kindly picking them out afterwards.
Do not simply rely on general knowledge and hope that no one will notice. Many won’t, but even they will be vaguely aware something is wrong. Consider the following description of a passing storm, taken from Opening a Chestnut Burr by Victorian novelist E. P. Roe:
A storm had passed away, leaving not a trace. The October sun shone in undimmed splendor, and all nature appeared to rejoice in its light. The waves with their silver crests seemed chasing one another in mad glee. The sailing vessels, as they tacked to and fro across the river under the stiff western breeze, made the water foam about their blunt prows, and the white-winged gulls wheeled in graceful circles overhead. There was a sense of movement and life that was contagious.
Roe was immensely popular in his day (1838-1888), with twenty novels to his credit. He has been largely forgotten today thanks to passages like the above. Even allowing for Victorian excess, once you strip away the rhetorical flourishes – the undimmed splendor and mad glee – what’s left? What are the actual details he gives us? The sun shone. The waves had silver crests. The breeze was stiff, the prows blunt, and the gulls white-winged. Movement was happening. The actual seascape underneath the linguistic bells and whistles is bland and almost featureless.
Now consider the following description of a passing storm from an island in the middle of the Atlantic, from H. M. S. Surprise, by Patrick O’Brian:
It was over. The rain stopped instantly, and the wind swept the air clear; a few minutes later the cloud had passed from the lowering sun and it rode there, blazing from a perfect, even bluer sky. To the westward the world was unchanged, just as it always had been apart from the white caps on the sea; to the east the squall still covered the place he had last seen the ship; and in the widening sunlit stretch between the rock and the darkness a current bore a stream of fledgling birds, hundreds of them.
Note how the description focuses on the details of the storm itself: perfect calm where the storm has just been, darkness where it is at the moment, and grounded fledgling seabirds floating in the widening gap between the two. Roe’s storm is a vague and amorphous thing that fades away and leaves a cliché-ridden nature rejoicing. O’Brian’s is a specific violent squall that blows through and leaves an eerie, contrasting calm in its wake.
That’s the difference you get when you invest the time and energy in actually watching the scene you want to describe. If E. P. Roe had actually sat on the shore after a storm and opened his eyes, he could easily have shown us more engaging things than gulls with white wings. And his pants would be damp from the wet sand, pock-marked by the hard rain.
So what problems have you run into with nature descriptions, either in your own work or others’? And, as always, if there are any topics you’d be interested in seeing here, let me know. This one came from a discussion on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page.
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