Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Flora, Fauna, Fiction

By Valerie Serdy

© 2001, By Valerie Serdy

My mother is an avid bird watcher.  Through osmosis I learned robins are the harbingers of spring, cardinals stay year round, and ironically named snowbirds, looking like small lumps of dusty coal, arrive with the winter snows.  Growing up, I assumed everyone knew this.  Worse, I assumed that all parts of the country had the same birds in the same seasons.

Seven years later, after moving from St. Louis to Seattle, I know better.  Robins stay year round out here.  We don't even have cardinals and snowbirds.  Red-winged blackbirds and flickers fly in for the summer and migrate out during our mild, rainy winters.  By volunteering with the local high school's environmental science class, I soon met teens who did not know what a robin was.  After this revelation, I noticed the same dichotomy in fiction.

Some writers choose words like delphinium, trillium and foxglove, while others use the generic term wildflowers.  Some show us crocus blooming with asters and daisies as proof of magic, others show a multitude of flowers impossibly blooming out of season together.  One author writes of the haunting call of a grebe while another comments of the raucous call of a water bird.

It's all about description.  Why say walk, when you can say run, gallop, stride, skip?  Why say flower, when you can say trillium, lily, or bleeding heart?  Why say duck when you can say grebe, loon, or mallard?

Not only does each of these descriptive terms provide more information to the reader in terms of what, they also give more information in terms of when.  Most things in nature have a season: flowers bloom, fruit sets and ripens, and leaves fall off trees.  Animals mate, babies are born, and some animals hibernate.  Birds and bats migrate.  Knowing how seasons affect your natural world will provide deeper, more realistic settings. 

People rarely live in vacuums; they have been watching plants and animals as a means of predicting seasons for years.  My mom is a big believer in these signs.  She watches the migrating patterns of birds to predict how hard the next winter will be.  She even watches wooly worms (an orange and brown fuzzy caterpillar): the darker a wooly worm's stripes, the harder the winter will be.  And she's not the only one.  The Farmer's Almanac is full of tidbits like this.

But you have to get it right.  Ignoring seasonal rules can either throw your reader out of the story or provide conflict if you recognize the unusual occurrence.  Most seasonal information can be learned through simple observation and the help of a good guidebook or knowledgeable friend.  If you haven't been paying attention to your environment closely before now, this will take some time.  What follows are some general observations and specific suggestions to watch for when you start waking up to your world.

Trees

Deciduous, or leafy, trees set buds in spring.  Trees don't all set buds at the same time.  Those that bud out first, like the cottonwoods and ornamental plums near my house, will be your harbingers of spring.  If the previous winter was overly cold or long, bud set will be delayed.  As temperatures warm to summer, leaves grow and tree canopies thicken.  If summers are dry, some trees will droop and their leaves may change color and drop early.  Leaves change color when, as fall nears, the evening temperatures drop.  If the temperatures don't get very cold, those spectacular fall colors will be muted.  (I haven't had a good season of leaf peeping since I moved to Seattle.)  Notice what color different leaves turn.  Maples in Seattle turn orange and red, cottonwood leaves only turn yellow.  In Colorado, fall is very golden because of all the aspens.  Again, different trees drop their leaves at different times and not all trees drop their leaves in fall.  In St. Louis, oak leaves die on the tree and remain there until they’re pushed off in spring by the new leaves.

If you can't identify your leafy trees yet, now's a good time to learn.  I find it's significantly easier to identify trees by the shape and size of their leaves than by their trunks, bark, and canopy.  Leaves are falling now, making it trivial to collect several and look them up in a guidebook.

St. Louis has no native evergreens, so until I moved to Seattle, I didn't think these trees had seasonal changes.  I've since learned that in spring, conifers haze over in what looks like pale green or blue mists as new sprigs grow on the tips of existing branches.  In summer, this new growth darkens to match the rest of the tree.  If summers are particularly dry, many trees, like the Douglas fir, will shoot up long leaders, with few spreading branches, giving the tree an unbalanced, spindly look.  Dry summers will also cause some trees, like cedars, to brown, droop, or drop needles.  And in fall, many drop cones.  Typically, though, the seasonal changes for conifers are much less dramatic than for deciduous trees.

Berries and Fruits

Berries and fruits feed not only people but birds and animals as well.  Some birds migrate just to eat certain berries.  In spring, berry bushes and brambles put out flowers and few leaves.  As with trees, different berries bloom first.  Salmonberry, with its fuchsia flowers, blooms first in Seattle, followed by blackberry's white blossoms.  Berry bushes are particularly busy in the spring as bees and other insects pollinate the flowers.  Leaves appear more thickly in summer, obscuring the new fruits as the flowers die off.  Berries almost all start green in spring and slowly ripen to their true color in summer.  Once fruit is ripe, birds, slugs, bears, campers, almost everything, comes out of the woodwork to eat them.  Berries also ripen at different times; salmonberries are usually gone before the blackberries are ripe.  If you live in berry country, pay attention to all the berries specific to your area.  We also have thimbleberries, huckleberries, blueberries, salal, and others I'm only now just learning.

If you don't live in berry country, watch for vineyards and orchards.  Grapes are technically a berry and follow similar patterns.  Small vineyards can be found almost everywhere summers are dry; I'm told Missouri is becoming known for its wines.

Don't judge when a fruit is in season in your area by what's available in the grocery stores.  Food is a global business and those peaches you see in the store in December probably came from South America.  Visit local orchards, farmer's markets, or roadside stands for more accurate information and better tasting fruit.

Flowers

Flowers are difficult.  Not only are there hundreds of varieties, many are bred to bloom longer and in more climates and colors than they might naturally.  To learn more about garden flowers, visit a local nursery, botanical garden, or arboretum.  A good book from the library will also help you learn more about which flowers are in season when.  Crocus, daffodils, and tulips are common spring flowers.  Roses bloom in summer.  Asters and mums are common fall flowers.

Animals

Most wild animals are shy and secretive so it's harder to observe them.  However, all animals go through seasonal changes, even my indoor cats.

In summer, hibernating animals begin hoarding food.  Squirrels can become quite aggressive when you approach their caches.  In fall, some animals begin putting on their winter coats and some will migrate, hibernate, or change their coat color.  In late winter or early spring, hibernating animals wake.  Most animals shed their thick winter coats; some animals' fur, like the snowshoe hare's, darkens to better match their surroundings.

Spring and fall are common times for mating, depending on the animal.  We were kept awake all last February as coyotes bayed at the moon during their mating season; their pups came out in summer.  Deer and elk tend to mate in the fall, bringing out new babies in spring. Domesticated animals also have typical mating seasons; just try finding kittens in the middle of winter.

If you want to learn more about the native wildlife in your area, look for small local zoos and wildlife parks, such as Northwest Trek in Washington and Lone Elk Park in Missouri.  Friends that live in particularly woodsy or rural areas will often have useful insights as well.  Visit any small family farm for more info about domesticated animals.

Birds

Many birds migrate in spring and winter.  Put up a birdfeeder (or talk to your neighbors) to see which birds come and go in your area.  Guidebooks will outline generalities but, if you live near a wetland or in a large city near a park, your mileage may vary.  In spring, mating and nest-building begins.  Birds guarding nests are typically more aggressive and will scold people and other animals that get too close.  Eggs hatch in summer; most evidence of this is broken shells on the ground and lots of anxious cheeping from hungry chicks.  Parents fly back and forth all day to provide food.  Some birds have two clutches a year, bringing out two crops of babies to gawk over.  When the weather starts cooling, some birds migrate in and out of the area.

Guidebooks and Neighbors

I love guidebooks but it can be hard to find a good one.  Look for a book with photographs or sketches and text descriptions of each picture.  A good book will also include habitat and mating information.  I prefer two guides for birds: One book with sketches and another with photographs.  Sketches easily pinpoint specific markings that photographs can hide depending on the position of the bird.  The size of plants can be misleading in guidebook photos, too.  Often you need to see close-ups of the leaf and stem structure to make an accurate identification, but these close-up pictures tend to magnify the perceived size of the plant.  Read the text description carefully.  Guidebooks are better bets than garden books for the plants found natively in your area.  Make sure that you choose a guidebook specific to your area.  Guides can be as general as Birds of North America or as specific as Animal Tracks of Washington and Oregon.  (It's often easier to find these more specific books at local zoos and museums.)

And don't underestimate the knowledge of your neighbors.  Amateur naturalists often provide information that scientists use to show the effects of global warming and pollution.  You don't need a fancy degree to become an expert on your surroundings; you just need to be a careful observer.  And as writers, that's something we should all be striving for.

One final note for SF and fantasy writers. Create your own plants and animals if it pleases you, but remember that all plants and animals go through some seasonal changes.  Don't forget to include that in your world building.  And please don't simply rename an Earth creature.  I recently read an otherwise commendable book that threw me out of the story every time the author spoke of the elga--a saltwater fish that migrated to fresh water to spawn.  A salmon by any other name…