Thursday, March 20, 2008

Night and Day

by G.M. Malliet

Can we really have reached the Spring equinox already? Looking at my small garden, I notice plants pushing through the earth, and flowers dotting the trees, long before they make their usual appearances. (I am reminded of a bumper sticker I saw the other day that read, “Is the planet getting warmer, or is it just me?”)

It took me awhile to notice that the planet was getting warmer. I think this is because we moved around so much when I was a kid—we were in the circus. Just kidding. We were a military family. So I had no benchmark for what was normal for spring, summer, fall, or winter. It just depended on where we were that year. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I settled in one place long enough to start taking stock of my surroundings.

So when it comes to descriptions of the natural world, I’ve had to train myself to observe and take notes and research, probably more than most, and there is still a danger I’ll get it wrong. I tend to notice people and their behaviors more than I notice what kind of tree they’re standing in front of. This may be another legacy of military life: Being injected into different surroundings every few years, you have to learn to pick up on the mores as quickly as possible.

I’ve noticed other writers deal with the “natural world” dilemma by having a character say something like, “There was a vase of some kind of spiky blue flower on the table.” Sometimes that’s enough to know. Long descriptions of trees and plants, listed by their Latin names, can be pretty boring anyway. And that phrasing tells you a bit about the character: This guy is no gardener.

What about you? What descriptions come easiest for you: animal, vegetable, or mineral?


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Ouch, you hit a personal nerve. I can hardly tell one form of plant life from another, so neither can my main character. In fact, in Curse of the Holy Pail I make fun of this.

I'm much better at describing people, animals, buildings, the weather, etc. Anything but flowers, trees and shrubs. If it grows out of the ground, it's a complete mystery to me outside of saying "that's pretty." And I have the silk plants in my home and dead plants in my office to prove it.

Nina Wright said...

Happy Spring, Gin! For ten years I lived on a flower farm in southwest Michigan, so plants are something I know about, or at least the plants that grow in Climate Zone 5B. When I moved to a Tampa Bay suburb, I developed a new horticultural vocabulary replete with exotic terms like "poinciana" and "jacaranda." But as you and Sue Ann point out, what we need to know or rather *show* as writers depends on our point-of-view characters. Whiskey Mattimoe wouldn't know an orchid from a daffodil. So I don't tap into my flora knowledge for her. But the series keeps me busy learning about business, forever a gaping hole in my education.

Keith Raffel said...

Animals (as long as we humans count).

Felicia Donovan said...

Gin, I have quite the reputation for my "green" office filled with plants, most of which I grow hydroponically. That's not to say I have any expertise but I do know a pothos from a pothole.

Oddly, though much of my time is spent observing animals who love to divert my attention from my work, I have yet to incorporate them into The Black Widow Agency other than Alexandria's beloved tarantula. Hmmmm... You just gave me an idea.

Thanks, Gin and Happy Spring!

jbstanley said...

My thumb is green, but only with flowers. If there is a vegetable plant involved, that same digit seems to turn brown and wither. Maybe it's because I prefer cake to cauliflower. As far as seasonal hints in books, I sometimes get tired of sounding like the weather channel, so I just quickly mention a character's outfit.

Happy Spring!