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…feel as if you are 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 just 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, he became excited about me adding the cricket. His point was 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 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 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 know where they are in the scene they can immerse themselves into the story. The setting becomes another part of the story. The story becomes real to 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 are you feeling? After a while do you sense your body relaxing–or tense up? What do you smell? Be quiet and listen to the sounds around you. Are you surprised that you can 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 changes.
Being outside at night gives you a whole range of different sights, sounds and smells than during the daytime. Even going outside of your home at night will give you a different perspective to pull from. Do you hear crickets…tree frogs…any birds? Does 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’s almost over-powering. Now, in the PNW I smell the evergreens and damp earth. Can you see 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 make you begin to feel more connected to the 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 might be far different than mine. That in itself can be something to be aware of. 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 feel that 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 have to examine how someone 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.