Writing Nature in Fiction

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My debut crime fiction novel, The Wild Inside (Atria), takes place in and around the unforgettable and often haunting Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. When I was doing research, I met someone who had worked on a wolverine project in the park. We had a lengthy, fascinating discussion about the animal, its habitat, and the politics of studying it. As we were wrapping up, I apologized for taking his time for something like fiction—something created from my mind and not scientific; he smiled and said, “I’ve come to think that perhaps fiction is the best way to deal with some of the social and environmental issues of our area.”

His statement stuck with me, and I began to consider my role as a crime fiction writer who often writes about the natural world. I revised my ideas about those who tend to nature, deciding that nature has many more servants than I initially thought. There are those who do hands-on work—biologists, farmers, wildlife rescuers—and those who do indirect work, such as accountants and law enforcement specialists at the Department of the Interior. Some folks volunteer: activists and conservationists who lobby on the environment’s behalf. There are journalists, environmental lawyers, politicians, professors, teachers... The list goes on. No matter what their duties are, most understand the need to tend to the planet in one way or another.

But crime fiction? Well, Mother Nature is apparently an equal-opportunity enlister. Although I don’t write crime fiction primarily to serve her and my novels are not eco-thrillers, I do find that when writing books set under the big sky of northwest Montana and in the commanding Glacier National Park, the landscape and environmental issues weave their way into the story.

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Most people sense that if we disconnect from the natural world, along with income inequality and other economic matters of our time, the future might be quite frightening. In Montana, the natural world is a weighty player in the economy. Economic hardships are brought on by closing saw mills, lumber plants, and other crucial industrial centers, all against a backdrop of significant environmental challenges: parched farmland, melting glaciers, forests decimated by drought and beetles, fire seasons, and endangered species. We have striking contrasts, with 10,000-sq.-ft. vacation homes on hillsides near trendy mountain towns, just down the road from trailer parks and small towns facing economic failure, often plagued by drugs.

Driving to Glacier Park means going through areas, such as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where opportunities for employment and economic security are scarce. People want to understand these issues, but following the news and listening to dueling experts is not always the best way. Sometimes it’s easier to learn while being entertained. So, for a crime writer, these mountain communities nestled beside the wilderness provide ample material, and I feel that I have a privilege in sharing a picture of the interdependencies between our communities and the natural world with my fiction. In some ways, it’s an opportunity to slide the economic and environmental issues past statistics, charts, and political ideologies, and to lift the reader above the dreaded sense of impotency to the very human experience of understanding through imagination.

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Don’t get me wrong: there are no easy solutions presented in my world of fiction, no perfect cures for economic or environmental woes. There is simply the cultivation of our senses—of our ears and eyes toward natural processes—and a humble hope that readers will sharpen their awareness on the most basic level, leading to an understanding that our connection to the Earth is essential and real, and that we must remain open to what Mother Nature whispers and even shouts out.

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Sound lofty and political? It really isn’t. It’s just good ol’ conflict, and for a crime fiction writer, conflict is the sacred fountain we drink from, the streams we enter to breathe life into our characters. And the characters in my neck of the woods just happen to be breathing the pine-scented mountain air.

If we writers can give a glimpse of a grizzly bear—maybe illuminate its hibernation process, describe where it travels and what it eats—then we’ve shown the creature itself, released from its cage of statistics. This is when the heart of the natural world begins to beat on the page—begins to beat in all of us, even if we live in concrete, far from the woods.

Christine Carbo is a crime fiction writer and small business owner in northwest Montana.

A version of this article appeared in the 06/15/2015 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Writing Nature in Fiction

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