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.