The Nature of My Nature Writing
by Sharon J. Wishnow
As I stumble through my 4th manuscript, working title, When the Oil Came to Shore, I once again chose an ocean community as my setting and an environmental subject as part of my plot, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
I've become a nature writer, but I didn't understand if this was a genre, new or old, a movement, or a moment. I did what I always do when curious about a question - research.
I quickly learned that environmental and nature writing is not a moment, more that it is having an emerging moment. Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond is an early example of nature writing. Back in the day writers who seemed to have way too much time and disposable income waxed poetically about the solitude of nature and the creepy crawlies they observed.
John Muir the founder of the Sierra Club was also a nature writer, and an activist. Fast forward a few decades and you'll find Rachel Carson and her society changing book, Silent Spring, which chronicled the horrors of DDT. Today, there are many contemporary authors who are naturalists and who write about our surroundings. I would say Jurassic Park is an example of nature writing. But..that's another blog.
Why Nature Writing is Important for All Writers
All stories have a setting and the step of a character in a situation of change, the call to adventure. Where is your character physically?
What does the character see?
What sounds or lack of sounds surround the character?
What are the sensations, think humidity, biting cold, warm sunshine, chilly moonlit night?
Does the air have a smell or taste? From what?
And the sixth sense, does the character have a sense of peace, fear, elation, or sadness, and how does the setting support this?
Consider the hooting of an owl or the yipping of foxes in the woods responding to firetrucks in the distance. A car burning rubber racing down a road would leave an acrid smell and possible taste. This is setting and this is nature.
The environment can be a city scape or a traditional outdoorsy space, mountain, ocean, woods, or pond. What makes it a nature piece is how authentic the writer can make it for the characters and the reader.
As a non-fiction science and tech writer, I'm all about facts and truths. I want to describe the 17-inch, sword like bill of my pelican character. I want readers to watch the mandibles squeeze seawater from the pelican's gulag pouch draining the captured fish before swallowing it whole. As a fiction writer, the details are important because when the environment changes, like adding oil and dispersants into the water, it changes how my pelican eats and his survival. Describing the setting with authenticity adds tension and helps to engage readers and keep those pages turning.
Do you have a point?
I admit, sometimes a story blooms because a writer finds something funny or interesting. I wrote a short about school bus drivers who race buses between shifts. I don't have an opinion about school buses. However, when it comes to longer pieces, novels, most authors have a point beyond a story premise. It's why we write, or why we should write.
I think about the ocean - a lot. That's another blog, too. Coral reefs, mollusks, krill, lion fish, ocean storms, ghost nets, ocean plastic, dolphins, Beluga whales, and sea birds all appear in my writing. I want to shout how damaged and endangered the oceans are, but I'm not a yeller. I want to tell stories that feature these issues. The life in the oceans are compelling and the problems created by humans are alarming. It's a natural place for story and conflict.
What's your point and can you use nature in an authentic way to tell it?
My nature writing is not a moment or a movement for me. Rather, it's an awakening of my writing voice and what in my heart I want to say.