Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
By Valerie Serdy
2001, By Valerie Serdy
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
wild animals are shy and secretive so it's harder to observe them.
However, all animals go through seasonal changes, even my indoor cats.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.)
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.
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…