How Do I Become a Nature Writer?
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Some people think nature writing is just describing a nice view or an animal. Perhaps they think it’s a bit limp; writing about fluffy fox cubs or how the writer’s life was transformed simply by seeing a flock of birds. And it’s all been done before a million times.
Well, it doesn’t have to be like that.
Perhaps writers in the past had a romantic view of nature indeed, the first ‘nature’ writers in the West were labelled the Romantics.
But these days we ask more of writers who use the natural environment for inspiration, particularly in this age of environmental awareness and the threats of climate change, habitat loss and species extinctions.
Nature writing is not just facts about wildlife or descriptions of the environment; it generally includes the presence of the writer. This doesn’t mean making the writer the sole subject of the essay or book: just that we expect to have a personal perspective; to know where the writer was when he or she was observing the scene we are reading about. It makes the writing richer.
We want facts, but there is so much information available now that people are not content with reading about an animal or landscape unless there is a new perspective. After all, why bother to read when you can just watch a wildlife programme on TV?
As with everything you write, however, you must be sure not to overdo it. If there is too much about yourself in a piece it becomes an autobiography, and facts can make it dry and boring if they are not presented well.
A Sense of Place
In all creative writing, whether nature writing or a crime thriller, it is important to accurately describe the place where the action takes place so the reader can be transported there; become part of the scene. To do this, you must describe it so it rings true – you wouldn’t have a penguin at the North Pole, for example. To do this properly you must understand the environment you are writing about. Don’t just say something bland such as ‘the grass you always find on sand dunes’: A bit of research would tell you that it is Marram Grass, specialised for growing on dunes. In fact, it’s what holds dunes together; a fact that is crucial if you are writing about a coastal dune system.
If you don’t indicate the scene, the reader may become confused and waste time trying to find out where the book is set, and lose track of the story. Eventually, they will get bored and stop reading. Even in nature writing, this is important: there is still the ‘story’ of the bird or animal you are describing, the weather conditions, the environment, what you are doing in it and what the reader is seeing – there is always a narrative. In all writing it’s good to take a moment when you think you’ve finished to ask yourself whether you’ve answered the five key questions – What? Where? When? Why? How?
We can’t always write outdoors, and it’s often difficult to write about nature indoors, or in an urban environment. So the best way to have an environment at your fingertips when you write is to have plenty of notes taken directly from the kind of place you want to write about. They don’t have to be comprehensive; they can be short sentences or even a simple list.
The idea is to collect ‘colour notes’ – memory-joggers – so you can immediately find yourself back in that place, or more clearly remember what happened, when you come to write it out more fully. If you don’t write down what you see at the time you see it, you are bound to forget something, no matter how good your memory. Exercise in making notes As an example, try and describe a place where you have been – a natural environment, such as a woodland. Do you remember it accurately?
Now go back to that place and make notes under each of these headings (single words will do):
What does it smell like? If it’s a woodland, can you smell pine needles, flowers, rotting leaves, wet earth, a stream? Close your eyes to help you focus on the smells around you.
What can you hear? Again, close your eyes and focus on listening. Can you hear birds? People? Dogs barking? Wind whispering through the trees? The sound of your own breathing? Your heartbeat?
What is the temperature? Is it cold? How cold – cold enough to make your fingers ache? Is it so hot you can feel sweat prickling on the back of your neck? Can you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin?
What else can you feel? Can you feel the earth beneath you? The clothes against your skin? The shoes on your feet? If you sit still long enough and think hard enough, with practice, you will become aware of your clothing, the rings on your fingers, the earrings in your ears.
What can you see? What is happening – is the wind moving the top branches? Is there a beetle crawling along a twig next to you? A butterfly fluttering past in a flash of colour – which colour? A bird swooping low across a clearing? Which bird is it? (If you don’t know its name, write down what it looks like and its behaviour and look it up when you get home, before you forget. Or sketch it in your notebook.). What colours can you see? What textures are there – mosses, lichens, fungi, twigs, branches, leaves, grass, dirt, pebbles, clouds?
How do you feel? Are you calm? Agitated? Nervous? Cold? Hot? Does the environment around you make you feel happy? Or perhaps you are sad, reminded of something or someone? Now write complete sentences about the place. If you find your mind wandering, it doesn’t matter. Write down what you think and feel. You may be able to use those thoughts later. Don’t worry about ‘creative writing’. Just use the words and phrases you normally would.
Your description of the place is much better now, isn’t it?
Inspirational reading Books I recommend that illustrate this engagement of the self with nature include the following:
- The Running Sky by Tim Dee. A personal journey through bird watching, written beautifully.
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. An iconic book that helped start the new nature writing movement. Just notes made around an ordinary house and garden.
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Another iconic work, filled with ecology, folklore, travel, personal experience, and threats to the Arctic environment. This book inspired me to start writing about nature many years ago.
- The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. Incredible language; well-known among nature writers.
- The Curlew. Non-profit quarterly, filled with fine prose, poetry and illustration about the natural world, with profits supporting conservation worldwide. Emerging and young writers and artists are as welcome as established ones.
Lastly, I would say, have confidence in your own work. You can raise awareness of nature and environmental issues with your writing. Don’t be afraid to have a go, and get your work out there, whether online or in book or magazine. After all, readers need writers. And you are a writer!
Written by : Lynn Parr
She is an author, editor and publisher living in West Wales, UK. She has had seven books published. She is the founder of The Curlew, a literary quarterly of fine writing and illustration about the natural world, which is now in its third issue and has been distributed to 11 countries, with sales supporting conservation. She has a PhD in Ecology and an MA in Writing Nature & Place. She and her husband, the sculptor Ben Dearnley, love to go canoeing and walking in the countryside. She can be reached via her website.
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