We end our month on nature writing with the most natural of questions: what’s in your nature setting? Editor Sara already covered what makes nature scary, but what makes nature, nature?
As you can see, forests are more than trees – even more than just one species of tree. There’s elm, birch, pine, evergreen, olive, apple, Joshua. In fact, according to Botanic Gardens Conservation International, there are over 60,000 different species of trees worldwide.
Additionally, there’s the undergrowth, the plant life that clings to thighs, ankles. Weeds and ferns that sprout up in limited light.
When writing your story, it’s important to remember the variety of plant species in a forest. Trees grow alongside smaller greenery (like berry bushes or ferns) which grow above small plant life such as mushrooms and flowers. Even in my backyard, there’s a diversity in the forest – in the image above, there’s at least three different tree species growing near each other.
Remember the region of the story too. A simple search of your story’s location (or places similar to your fictitious setting) will help fill in any gaps regarding the landscape. There is no such thing as just ‘a tree’. The more detail, the better. For instance, Sequoias only grow in California, so if your main character is running around the wilderness of West Virginia, he’s not taking shelter against a redwood. He’s hiding behind a dogwood or a sycamore.
Forests are filled with wildlife too. And just like our leafy friends, animals come in a range of species and breeds.
These vary but just because a common animal such a wolf might linger in the woods of Maine, it certainly won’t be the same as an Alaskan Tundra wolf. This is the same for certain birds and insects so be sure to narrow your location and cross reference with wildlife databases because if your story takes place in the Florida Everglades, the main character has to worry about alligators and Burmese pythons – not a polar bear (unless it’s from Lost). He’s also bumping into less popular creatures like manatees and wild boars.
If you’ve never hiked, let me spoil the idea of making an animal best friend – your character is not a Disney princess and she probably won’t even see an animal, may just hear one if lucky. What she will encounter is poop, carcasses, footprints and (maybe) nests. Nothing was scarier in Stranger Things than when Nancy came face to face with a deer carcass getting ripped into the Upside Down world.
It’s all about judgment as well. If your story doesn’t take place deep in the woods it doesn’t make sense for the character to see specific breeds at all. If they’re driving by a forest, don’t have a deer just chilling by the road for the purpose of being authentic.
Of course, don’t forget the ground beneath your characters’ feet. What would 127 Hours be without the boulder trapping him? And just like plants and animals, dirt comes in a variety of shapes and sizes – from hard rock to river smooth stones to squishy soft forest floors, no two handfuls of dirt feel the same. Getting tackled on a sandy beach feels completely different than facepalming on a mountaintop. Trust me.
Remember, the point of thinking about these aspects is to lay down enough details to make your story realistic. It’s to create a world the reader can visualize, feel and explore while they’re not reading. Details make the book and the details of nature are never “there was a tree and some ground and maybe a wild animal.”
I get it; you’re a creator not a scientist; you’ve never had a professor lecture you on the 8 different types of soil. How are you supposed to know the what plant and animal life goes into the setting?
The simple answer: Google. Search for “trees grow in Michigan” or “wild animals in North India.” There’s even a database of trees from the BGCI.
I have the iNaturalist app on my phone which allows me to upload photos to track different species I encounter. It identifies everything from plants to fish. Simply take a photo of it, upload into the app and wait for someone to identify the animal. Once identified, there’s a link to a webpage with information on diet, habit, growth cycle. Use that information in your story.