I consider it a compliment when readers say the ‘wilderness’ in my novels, Tracker and Pursuit, is as much a character as the people in them.
Writing scenes in the out of doors—especially in the remote wilderness—and making it believable is key to making my writing successful.
I want the reader to be immersed in the experience to the point they believe they are standing in the woods, smelling the scent of pine and damp earth…hearing the tree boughs above move with the wind…the warmth of the sun on their face as it slips in and out between the canopy of leaves overhead. See what I did there? Could you picture the scene…sense you were standing in the woods?
But imagination only goes so far…
I often think about an impromptu writing exercise my writing mentor gave us to do. Our assignment was to write for 10 minutes, creating a story from only what we saw in the room. He had opened the window, and as I wrote I noticed the sound of a lone cricket outside and wove it into my story.
As we shared our writing in group, he became excited about the fact I had added the cricket song. He pointed out that our imaginations can only go so far, and unless we go to a place and experience it, we will miss those little sensory details that can add richness to the setting.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
Setting the Scene in Your Story
Scene setting is paramount to making our readers feel grounded in the story. They need to understand where the characters are, hence where they, the reader are. Otherwise it becomes unsettling and distracts the reader from the story (unless that is your purpose as the writer).
Remember, the only rule in writing is there are no rules. But I’m a firm believer in following writing guidelines until I’m sure I can break the rules successfully—and then only for the purpose that it makes the story better.
When readers are grounded in the scene they are free to fully immerse themselves into the story. The setting becomes another character of the story. The story becomes real for them.
Nature as the Setting
If you don’t spend much time outside in nature and you need to write a scene in your book in the out of doors, the best advice I can give you is to immerse yourself in nature and take notes. You don’t have to plan a trip to some exotic wilderness. It can be as simple as going to a local park and getting as far away from people as possible. Find a quiet spot and sit alone.
What did you feel? After a while did you sense your body relaxing—or tense up?
What did you smell? The hot sands of the desert? The damp earth of a woods—a lake shore—the ocean?
Be still and listen to the sounds around you. Were you surprised to hear insects buzzing, tree limbs creaking or leaves on shrubs rustling, a hummingbird buzz close by, lizards running over leaves?
Different seasons of the year bring about different sights, sounds and smells as the temperature and moisture levels change. Go out often to become familiar with these often subtle changes.
Being outside at night gives you a whole different range of sights, sounds and smells than during the daytime. Even the simple act of stepping out your back door at night will give you a different perspective to use in your writing.
Did you hear crickets…tree frogs…any birds? Did the dampness of evening bring up smells you haven’t noticed before? When I lived in southern California, as the sun sat and damp ocean air settled in, it made the oil in the eucalyptus trees become so fragrant it was almost over-powering. Now, in the PNW I smell the evergreens and damp earth.
Did you study the moon and stars in the sky? Did you know ahead of time what phase the moon was in before you went outside?
The simple act of going outside every night after dark will help you begin to feel more connected to the natural cycle of nature as you watch the moon phases change and the star constellations move across the sky. Who knows, you may grow to love it!
Point of View Considerations
I spend a lot of time in the out of doors, so I’m comfortable there. If you are new to being out in nature, your experience may be far different than mine. That in itself can be something to be aware of when writing a scene.
I have a work-in-progress novel which features a character who has lived her entire life in the big city. She does not enter a wooded area and undergo the same sense of relief I experience. Her body does not relax. For my character, the woods is a foreign world that frightens her a little. I have to be aware of that fact as I’m writing and make sure I look at it from her POV (point of view)—not mine. I had to examine how someone, like her, would experience each aspect of entering the wilderness for the first time. And yes, as she becomes more familiar with nature it becomes easier for me to write her scenes because it’s closer to my own experience.