Welcome to Friday Fiction Facts: Sciency things fiction writers need to know

This week I want to talk about how fiction writers depict nature.  Way back, when we all learned about describing scenes, we were taught to identify certain items with extra precision to give the reader a sense of time, place, and character.

In its simplest form, this means you don’t tell readers that Jasmine is watching TV. You tell them that Jasmine is watching Kill Bill. And as you describe Jasmine’s home, you identify specific items that tell readers more about Jasmine and her life — the rough-hewn oak floor, a pair of muddy Sorrels by the door, a double-barreled shotgun she calls Chekhov…

Good writers do this beautifully, striking a careful balance between painting a rich scene and delivering long-winded descriptions. But even the best writers sometimes lose that attention to specifics the minute the scene shifts outdoors. Suddenly Jasmine is in a place where birds sing, trees line the road, flowers bloom, and ducks swim on a pond.

What kinds of birds, trees, flowers, or ducks, we will never know. The same way we would never know anything about Jasmine’s family if they sit down to dinner and eat food, sip drinks, and enjoy dessert.

The undescribed landscape. Image by Peter Heeling via Skitterphoto CC0; filtering, mine.


Some characters, like Jamie in this excerpt from The Girl in the Burning Boat, by Gregg Dunnett, don’t experience nature at all, even when they are in the middle of it — no cries of gulls, loud scattering of mallards, buzz of dragonflies, or splash of fish.

“I didn’t have anyone left to tell me [that buying a boat] was a stupid idea. So I bought her — could you untie us?” Jamie interrupted himself… Alice unwound the bowline and pulled the rope back into the boat. Jamie pushed off with one hand and steered expertly through the maze of moored boats and mooring buoys.

I read on to see if Jamie and Alice encountered any nature along the way, but in three pages of boating up the river, they observed only “thick woods” and experienced “a beautiful day.”

Why does describing nature matter?

Because if we, as writers, are to take some responsibility for helping people appreciate nature and all that we have to lose as  a result of climate change and human encroachment, we need to show readers that real animals and real plants with names exist in everyday life. This is on us.

Language does not just name our society. It shapes it. If plants and animals are never named, they never form in our minds as something concrete.  When readers can’t picture a mallard duck, hear the joyful song of a song sparrow, or smell pine needles crushed underfoot it’s easier for them to discount those bits of nature as unimportant and expendable.


Fiction is a wonderful places to slip those names, those words, into readers’ consciousness. Look at the difference just a few details makes in this description by Mary Lawson in Crow Lake

The lake was the town’s only asset, in Ian’s opinion. It was large–fifty miles long, north to south, and almost twenty miles across–and deep, and very clear, surrounded on all sides by low granite hills studded with spruce and wind-blasted pines. Its shore was so ragged with bays and inlets that you could spend your life exploring…

Or this very simple addition of a bird from Ransom Riggs’ YA novel, A Map of Days

Rich people’s houses fronted the Gulf; the rest of us looked out on Lemon Bay, which on quiet mornings was really very nice, with sailboats drifting by and herons fishing for their breakfasts along the bank.

How much nature you introduce by name will depend on your characters and their location, of course. You aren’t going to describe a red-bellied woodpecker if Jasmine has no idea what that is. But you can certainly give your characters the benefit of a doubt when it comes to plants and animals that are common where they live.

Red-bellied woodpecker, for the record. Photo mine.

For instance, I’ve lived in northern New York and southern Ontario for my whole adult life. And everywhere I’ve lived, most adults and children I knew were able identify a good selection of everyday animals common to our region — Canada geese, robins, grey squirrels, pigeons, rabbits, blue jays, opossums, cardinals, gulls, chipmunks, crows, raccoons, and skunks — to name a few.

Add to this, general groupings like hawks, turtles, snakes, sparrows, bats, frogs, fish and woodpeckers and you have full slate of creatures you could safely use to bring a scene to life.

I think people are a little less knowledgeable about plants and their relations, but still, many can identify general groups — oak trees, acorns, pine trees, pine cones, maple leaves, mushrooms, moss, clover, roses, cactus, palm trees, and so forth.

Sugar maple leaf, blue jay feather, and an eastern red cedar (juniper) branch. Photo mine.

Also remember, Jasmine doesn’t have to know the name of a plant or animal in order to experience it. Look at what Emma Donohue did here in The Wonder–

A lane led towards a clump of woodland. She noticed leaves lobed like oak but on straighter branches than English oaks. The hedges were spiky with furze, and she breathed the bouquet of the tiny yellow blooms. There were drooping pink flowers that no doubt Anna O’Donnell could have named. Lib tried to identify some of the birds twittering in the bushes, but the low boom of the bittern was the only one she knew for sure– the foghorn of some unseen ship.

A few years ago, a writing colleague pitched the idea of writing a romance novel with an environmental or nature theme. How many people are reading nature essays?, she asked. How many more are reading romance? Could this be a way to bring nature to more readers?

It’s a good thought. One book. Thousands of readers. But another approach is for thousands of writers to slip bits of nature here and there into thousands of novels. Maybe, by working together, we can add to our readers’s collective appreciation for the nature around us.


** Header photo: mine.