Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Craft: Keeping a Nature Journal

Have you ever been watching a sunset or hiking a trail when suddenly a description you read of just such a scene pops into your head? Yesterday, a brilliantly sunny day following an unusually early snowfall in my Philadelphia suburb, brought to mind the "lapis lazuli" sky Edith Wharton described in The Age of Innocence.  Last summer I posted about how including weather in your stories can add depth to your writing. The same goes for other natural phenomena like the light of a full moon or the way a streak of lightening appears to shatter a purple sky.

This past summer I began keeping a "nature journal." Not the kind people kept in the old days with drawings of flowers labeled with their scientific names.  This is a journal of short one or two sentence descriptions of a sunrise under various different conditions, such as a cloudy day vs a cloudless day, or the way the sky appears at sunset. I noted how a full moon shows everything in near daylight brightness and yet washed of color. I also cheated a little and added things I remembered from past years that I might not have seen recently like the way a crust of ice forms on top of snow after a freezing rain, or looking down a lane of trees following an ice storm when branches appear encased in glass.

I am lucky, as a writer at least, to live in an area that experiences all varieties of weather from humid to dry, from flash floods to droughts. I've never actually seen a tornado, but I saw the effects where one touched down nearby a few years ago, and I've never been in the eye of a hurricane, but the tail end was enough to help me project how it might feel.

We can't always restrict ourselves to writing exactly what we know. While I caution against writing about places you've never been, for example setting your story in LA when you've never even been to California, sometimes we may want to write about someplace we've been but in a different season. That's where cataloging our own experiences can come in handy.

Right now I'm writing a historical piece that takes place on the Nebraska prairie in the late 1870s. I visited the place I'm writing about, but in the summer. The historical event that frames my story happened at night in mid-January. I know there was a full moon and a light covering of snow on the ground. I have my notes on moonlight to refer to. Also I know the prairie is windy, and I know what it feels like when the wind sweeps a powdery snow over the ground so that it sprays into your face. Adding that small touch, I feel, brought realism to the piece.

Notice that I use the word "touch." Pre-movies and TV I imagine readers had more appreciation for long Hardyesque descriptions of dusk falling on the moors. Today, painting a picture with words is better thought of as a writing exercise. In the final version, just a line or two of description interspersed here and there is enough to give the reader a sense of place.

If you are like me, just the right words may come along once in a blue moon. That's the point of keeping my journal. When I need to describe a blue moon or a crescent or a night with no moon at all, I'll be ready.

1 comment:

Angie Ledbetter said...

Good idea...the little snigglet file for ideas and sensory snapshots for when ya need them.


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