Writing Tip: How to Write Realistic Outdoor Scenes

I consider it a compliment when readers say the ‘wilderness’ in my Fox Walker Novels, is as much a character as the people in them.

Stream in a forest

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

Taylor Creek Hike in Zion National ParkIf 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.

Night Sky with Stars and MoonBeing 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 recently wrote a novel which featured 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 had to be aware of that fact as I was writing and make sure I looked 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 became more familiar with nature it became easier for me to write her scenes because it’s closer to my own experience.


Do you write a lot of scenes out in nature? If you don’t, did you find this helpful?


  1. Jill G. Hall

    I love to write scenes and poems in nature too! Thanks for all these great suggestions. Your nature writing is always so lovely, lush and authentic. It was clear to me that you had spent a lot of time immersed in it.

    • indy

      Thanks for the kind words, Jill. I do love being in nature, as I know you do too. I especially enjoy your nature poems. Here’s to spring! :0)

  2. Gaston Sanders

    Thanks for the article Indy. I’m in the middle of my book about the coming of age of your four young boys in a rural Texas town. They spend a lot of time in the woods. Your thoughts and insights are helpful.

    • indy

      Thanks for taking the time to comment here, Gaston – it’s nice to hear from you and I’m glad you found the blog helpful. It sounds like I would very much enjoy reading your book. I hope you’ll keep in contact and let me know once it’s available. And best wishes on the writing. Write on!

  3. Lois Joy Hofmann

    Thanks for this enlightening and enjoyable column, Indy. I too, love to provide a sense of place to my stories, most of which take place in nature, many of them, of course, at sea.

    • indy

      Lois – your writing indeed is rich with details from the surrounding environment…not only the sea, but of the many places you’ve visited in your travels! Even without photos, I “see” them from your viewpoint. I’m so glad you enjoyed the column and thank you, as always, for taking the time to comment here! Hugs to you ~

  4. Sherrey Meyer

    Indy, excellent post! In writing memoir, sensory details outdoors is something often overlooked. Not many outdoor scenes unless you live near nature and out of the big city. These are great tips and as I rewrite I’m going to try to remember them. Maybe I’ll just put a copy of your post on my desk! Then I’ll have you close by too.

    • indy

      Sherrey, I’m so glad you found it helpful! And you’re correct, we often forget sensory details for any type of the writing we do. Even the sound of a cricket outside an open window can draw us into the story. ;0) Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment- much appreciated!


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