My Take on the Natural World

I’ve been thinking about how I and other writers use the natural world in my stories. It’s a cliche to use a storm to reflect the turmoil within, sunny weather to underscore the openheartedness of a certain character, a snowstorm to emphasize the challenges that someone faces. To give readers a sense of the season, I might talk about the unexpected rain that thwarts a character’s effort to sneak into a home without leaving a trace, or the noisy dry leaves underfoot that give her away as she tries to sneak up to an open window. I’ve been thinking recently about how the literary use of fiction differs from the natural world as I encounter it daily.

My experience of the natural world consists of squirrels eating the pumpkins decoratively arranged on my front porch. And then there are the half-eaten early apples left by the rabbits. The raccoons have moved out of the garage because there’s a hole in the roof that lets in too much light. The skunks moved out ages ago because of the neighbor’s dog always barking at them. The mice have learned to stay out of the kitchen because we have a dog is too interested in them. That said, I have nothing against mice.

In this area, residents who live along the water, in lovely homes with terraces facing the sea, time their evening dog walks to avoid the coyote who has moved in recently. I spotted him trotting down the middle of the street when I was driving home late one night from an event. The wild turkeys seem to have moved on, which is fine with me. During the spring mating season the toms are aggressive. During the summer the birds stop traffic, attack any car that honks at them, and befoul yards and damage feeders. The toads in the garden are welcome but the aphids are not. The worms are also welcome, but I haven’t seen a garter snake in years. I’m very fond of bees, but they’re scarce now, as are the monarch butterflies. 

As writers we get to pick and choose the details we want to work with. If a man is trying to elude a car following him, he might speed up and then skid on wet leaves, which are as dangerous as snow and ice in some parts of the country. An old woman with dementia wants to hide her wealth from a designing nephew and buries it in the garden. We can see the plot twist coming–she never tells anyone and forgets where it is. But what about the squirrels that will dig up and eat anything? Now the squirrel is relevant.

The features of nature that are so prominent in ordinary life have no value if they don’t advance the story. Describing the mice that sneak around the kitchen at night might make the story feel grounded in real life but unless at least one mouse does something to help the story along, he’s clutter. The art of fiction is in transforming the mundane into something that matters, the string of a tea bag twisted around the bag and spoon to squeeze out every drop by a woman who resents her co-workers. The coyote no one has seen except one neighbor, who insists it’s out there, roaming the neighborhood after midnight. I want to know more about these two, that woman and that man.

The ordinary matters only when I as a writer make it matter. As I scratch out sentences and then tap them into the computer, I use what I see or recall to set the stage for a new story, and then I try to twist it into a compelling, haunting moment. Nature is neutral until it takes sides, helping one character or hurting another. One of my goals this year is to use more of the natural world that I experience and avoid cliches.

6 thoughts on “My Take on the Natural World

  1. You are lucky to live in an area with so much wildlife! I want to have animals in my life, and my characters do, too. Even if an animal doesn’t provide a clue in a mystery, the character’s thoughts about it provide characterization for that person. I say, the more animals in a book, the better! That said, I prefer not to house raccoons or mice inside my home if I don’t have to. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pamela. Yes, animals do draw out the character of humans, and I hope to use more of them. It’s interesting how the presence of animals in a story line can help to structure the narrative.


  2. I forget that some people are repelled (to the tops of tables) by mice. My younger brother would have imitated Hawke, but I don’t know anyone (yet) who would follow Dela. I’m definitely going to have to include a mouse in my next story.


    1. The first house my husband and I lived in after we married was filled with mice. I hated cleaning out my cupboards every other day. One even ran up my leg when I was undressing to get in the bathtub. I abhor the beady-eyed little vermin. And the second house we lived in also was infested with mice. My husband and his friend would sit in the living room at night watching TV holding BB guns and would shoot the mice that ran across the floor. Every house we’ve built, I have plugged all holes with caulking to make sure I never have a mouse in my house again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fortunately we’ve never lived anywhere with such an infestation (which could certainly alter my opinion of them), only the occasional one or two living in the cellar. My cat caught one once, managed to get it up to the second floor, to our bedroom, where she “played” with it on the bed until she woke me up. I saw what she had, tossed both to the floor, and went back to sleep. The next morning I found the dead mouse under the bed.


  3. That mouse scampering or hiding in the kitchen is relevant to the story if it reveals how a character reacts to it. 😉 I would be on top of the table, while my character Hawke would toss it a piece of bread and tell it to hide from his dog. My other character, Dela Alvaro, would head out and buy a BB gun to shoot it. Each character would “show” themselves through that encounter. Good post! I also enjoy adding nature to my stories. It is the best way to write a well-rounded story.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.