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. [Read more…]