Monday, October 17, 2011

Thoughts on Trees

Tip of the Day: Even for a fiction book, start a bibliography. It's so handy to be able to re-read an article you used to establish your setting months after you first read it.

I grew up on Long Island, so my tree identification skills are limited to scrub pines, maples, and if I'm really stretching my memory cells, oaks. I'm somewhat aware that Christmas trees can have large or small needles, and I could identify holly and birch bark, and that's about that.

Obviously this is not going to cut it if I'm in the head of a main character who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I can't say "She hid behind a tree and listened to the bird yell at her" without her sounding four years old.

Oh, and birds. I've always owned cats, so birds are usually yelling, as far as I can tell. I can recognize a hawk, a cardinal, a crow, a robin, a heron, and a blue jay by sight, but if I had to pick out a sparrow or a nuthatch from a lineup, he'd get away clean. I'm almost positive they live in my yard, though! Many times I sit in my backyard and observe them chattering away to each other about the cat, and I think to myself, "Yup. That's a bird."

So may I recommend that we all take advantage of this time of year to take a few observational hikes, hopefully with someone who knows nature. This weekend I learned that a hemlock is an evergreen, which I did not know before. I told my daughter and she didn't know either, and I'm afraid that if I tell my husband, he will roll our eyes at both of us, point to a tree from out our window, and say, "That's a hemlock right there!"

I think for my story idea about the Blue Ridge Mountains, I'll look for tree and bird flash cards.

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

There's nothing like taking a guided walk in the territory you're writing about, and having the guide show you the most common plants that grow there. In National Parks, rangers often do this, but you may be able to find contacts through local hiking clubs.

Books don't always have the right info because they will often stick with native species, and in most parts of the US, invasive species may actually dominate the real-life landscape. Some native species are even so endangered that your characters may never encounter them.

I could tell you what kinds of plants grow in the different habitats of southeastern Pennsylvania, no problem. Haven't been in the Blue Ridge Mountains, though!

Kate Fall said...

Jenn, National Park rangers is a fantastic tip! Thanks. I'd personally love an excuse to visit central Virginia again.

DeenaML said...

This is one of the reasons I think that all my books take place in western NY.... :-P

Emily Marshall said...

Kate, good luck with the research. I tend to steer clear of anything involving mentions of nature in my books. In part because if I made a mistake (which I'm 99.9 percent sure would happen), I'd never live it down, since my husband is a biologist/ecologist/whatever else they call "tree" people. Though I guess it would come in handy as a resource. Jennifer's answer seems like a wonderful one. If you need a backup, let me know...the husband might have a suggestion of a good resource for the specific area you are looking into to.

Emily Marshall said...
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Kate Fall said...

Thanks, Em. It will be a while before I get to start on a new book, but it always helps to have the next one in your mind, I think. And Deena, sadly I don't know the names of trees around here much better!