The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

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Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

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Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

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Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

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Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

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Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia) (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

International Writers’ Festival at Val David

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International Writers’ Festival & Retreat with Flavia Cosma, Val David

In the middle of June 2019, I drove to Val David, Quebec, with poet-songstress and friend Honey Novick. We had been invited to participate in Les Mots du Monde, the nineteenth international writers’ and artists’ festival of readings, songs, and discussions. The location was the residence of international poet Flavia Cosma. Cosma has been hosting the writer’s event for close to a decade in her large house in the forest just outside the resort town of Val David in the Laurentians.

The program spanned two days of lecture, readings, performance and art by artists and writers from Argentina, Romania, Mexico, USA, Laval, Montreal, and Toronto.

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International Festival among the trees

Poets, writers, musicians and artists included Honey Novick, Hélène Dorion, Tito Alvarado, Dinorah Gutiérrez Andana, Flavia Cosma, Gerette Buglion, Yvan-Denis Dupuis, EcologyOfStoryJeremiah Wall, Nina Munteanu, Nancy R. Lange, Nicole Davidson, Carmen Doreal, MarieAnnie Soleil, Luis Raúl Calvo, Louis-Philippe Hébert, Melania Rusu Caragioiu, Anna-Louise Fontaine.

I talked about my experience and process of writing my upcoming speculative novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, coming out in 2020 with Inanna Publications. The novel chronicles four generations of women and their relationship with water during a time of extreme change.

I also shared examples of my recently launched writing guidebook “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” (Pixl Press). The 3rd guidebook in my Alien Guidebook Series, “Ecology of Story” focuses on place and environment and how these form the heart of a good story.

Throughout the festival, we were treated to magnificent ethnic food and refreshments. Interesting discussions on the international literary scene over wine and desert followed.

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Lunch at Flavia’s

I shared good conversation with fellow poet and water advocate Nancy R. Lange. She had given a compelling presentation on her recent book “Les Cantiques de l’eau” (Marcel Broquet) and knew about my book “Water Is: The Meaning of Water” (Pixl Press). Of course, the best thing to do was exchange books—which we did. Nancy is the literary ambassador for the Eau Secours organization and has promoted responsible water stewardship through her writing and presentations for many years.

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“It is not the cliff that shapes the ocean. It is the ocean that shapes the cliff. Fluidity is always the greater force than rigidity.”—Nancy R. Lange

 

On the final day, the writers and artists put on a public performance at the Val David Centre d’Exposition.

C'est La Vie Cafe

C’est la Vie Cafe, Val David

Val David

Val David is a small resort town located in the Laurentian Mountains about 80 kilometers from Montreal, Quebec. The village is known for its food scene and its artistic character. When I was there, I sampled the local cafes and experienced the street market, which offered a diversity of locally made and sourced produce and crafts.

 

 

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

“The Ecology of Story: World as Character” Launched at Type Books, Toronto

ECOLOGY_Poster-web2UofT instructor and writer Nina Munteanu launched the third book in her acclaimed “how to write” series at Type Books, Toronto, on July 4th, 2019. The launch of “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” celebrated writing and place through readings, songs and talks by local writers, poets and singers.

“The Ecology of Story” was created to address the need for writers to better acknowledge the central role of place in story and better address the interrelatedness of environment with character on a journey.

“The Ecology of Story” appears in two parts; Part 1 is dedicated to basic ecology with a focus on strange and wonderful relationships in the natural world; Part 2 integrates metaphoric connections between character and place/environment to deepen meaning in story.

 

 

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Launch at Type Books

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

The Ecology of Story” teaches the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character in fiction. For excerpts of the book go to EcologyOfStory.

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Launch presenters

Launch at Type Books

Poet and song writer Honey Novick opened the launch with an inspirational song. Ted Nolan, Maureen Scott Harris and Nehal El-Hadi read poems and works that addressed lost rivers, particularly of Toronto. Merridy Cox discussed the science of binomials. Costi Gurgu read from his most recent work Reciparium, and Cheryl Xavier read her poem to the Banyan tree. Honey closed with another song, ending the formal part of the event.

Launch Presenters

Honey NovickHoney Novick is a poet, voice teacher, singer and songwriter. Honey is the winner of the Empowered Poet Award, CAPAC, Yamaha Classical Music Competition in Japan, among others. Honey wrote music for CBC’s Morningside and sang for Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

 

Ted NolanTed NolanE. Martin Nolan—is a poet, essayist, editor and voice of the trees. He teaches in the Engineering Communication Program at the University of Toronto and is a PhD Candidate in Applied Linguistics at York University. His latest work is a chapbook written in collaboration with some trees entitled: “Trees Hate Us.”

 

MaureenScottHarrisMaureen Scott Harris is a poet, essayist, and rare books cataloguer. A UofT grad in Library Science, she received the Trillium Book Award for poetry for Drowning Lessons and was the first non-Australian to be awarded the 2009 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize for her essay, “Broken Mouth: Offerings for the Don River, Toronto.”

 

Nehal El-HadiNehal El-Hadi is a writer, researcher, editor and journalist, who explores the intersections of body, technology, and space. Her writing has appeared in academic journals, literary magazines, and forthcoming in anthologies and edited collections. She is currently a visiting scholar at York University and sessional faculty at the University of Toronto.

 

MerridyCoxMerridy Cox is a naturalist, photographer, editor, indexer and poet. She is also managing editor of Lyrical Leaf Publishing. Merridy has a degree in biology and museum studies;  her poetry focuses mostly on the natural world around her; her poems and photographs are published in several literary anthologies. She has edited several books, including this one!

 

Costi GurguCosti Gurgu is a graphic designer and illustrator as well as an award-winning science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer who is published in anthologies and magazines throughout the world. He is a former lawyer and was art director for lifestyle and fashion magazines in Europe before moving to Canada. His latest novel—RecipeArium—was called the new new weird by Robert J. Sawyer and was nominated for an Aurora Award.

 

cheryl-xavierCheryl Antao-Xavier is an editor, interior book designer and publisher with IOWI. She has been publishing emergent writers since 2008 and continues to offer self-publishing solutions to writers and companies and organizations. She recently released her book: “Self-Publishing the Professional Way: 5 Steps from Raw Manuscript to Publishing.”

 

Launch sign outside

 

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

 

Ecology of Story: Place as Symbol

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Birds over Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“In their simplest form, symbols are anything outward that stands in for anything inward or abstract, such as a mood or an idea,” writes Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. As representations, symbols often serve as markers in a story. They may be a talisman, a totem that inspires a shift or awakening. In story, a symbol—particularly as talisman—may come as a gift to a character in need of inspiration. In the Hero’s Journey trope, this is often provided by a mentor archetype.

An example in story is the light saber that Obi Wan Kenobi presents to Luke Skywalker to aid him on his journey as a Jedi master. Symbols often reoccur as motif to incite an emotional trigger or turning point for a character.

Symbolism in literature provides richness, colour and depth of meaning. Use of symbols helps deepen theme beyond conscious appreciation and into emotional and subconscious levels. Symbolism can be portrayed through figure of speech in which an object or situation has another meaning than its literal meaning. It can also express through the actions and observations of a character, language or event that creates deeper meaning through context.

Maass provides the example of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to depict superb use of symbol in storytelling:

Poisonwood Bible-KingsolverShe is inhumanly alone. And then, all at once, she isn’t. A beautiful animal stands on the other side of the water. They look up from their lives, woman and animal, amazed to find themselves in the same place. He freezes, inspecting her with his black-tipped ears. His back is purplish-brown in the dim light, sloping downward from the gentle hump of his shoulders. The forest’s shadows fall into lines across his white-striped flanks. His stiff forelegs play out to the sides like stilts, for he’s been caught in the act of reaching down for water. Without taking his eyes from her, he twitches a little at the knee, then the shoulder, where a fly devils him. Finally he surrenders his surprise, looks away, and drinks. She can feel the touch of his long, curled tongue on the water’s skin, as if he were lapping from her hand. His head bobs gently, nodding small, velvet horns lit white from behind like new leaves. 

It lasted just a moment, whatever that is. One held breath? An ant’s afternoon? It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences. I never had more than five minutes peace unbroken. I was that woman on the stream bank, of course. Orleanna  Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead. That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.

In this opening to her novel, Kingsolver explores a multi-layered symbol for her main character’s bewilderment at the mystery and beauty of the environment around her, tied into her own essential helplessness, says Maass. “Part of what makes [Kingsolver’s] symbols poetic is that all of them emerge from the natural world around her characters,” he adds. Nature’s symbols are powerful archetypes that reveal compelling story. These symbols abound in Kingsolver’s novel that explores the relationships of five women with their environment and the rigid ignorance of their patriarch, Nathan Price. The garden, Maass tells us, provides many examples of this. Price has planted his seeds in a flat, not accounting for the torrential afternoon downpours, which wash away his garden in a flash. Later, the poisonwood tree in their yard gives Price a horrid rash, suggesting that he is messing with a place he does not understand or respect. How each of the women interacts with her environment over time provides a deeply felt and metaphoric revelation of how she relates to others and to herself—all reflecting her personal journey in the story. As the quote indicates, Orleanna Price experienced a turning point through discovery. In this example the discovery occurred through a sudden encounter with a natural element.

In my near-future speculative novel A Diary in the Age of Water, cynical limnologist Lynna sees everything in her life through limnological metaphors, ironically predicting her own future:

Diary Water cover finalAn oligotrophic lake is basically a young lake. Still immature and undeveloped, an oligotrophic lake often displays a rugged untamed beauty. An oligotrophic lakes hungers for the stuff of life. Sediments from incoming rivers slowly feed it with dissolved nutrients and particulate organic matter. Detritus and associated microbes slowly seed the lake. Phytoplankton eventually flourish, food for zooplankton and fish. The shores then gradually slide and fill, as does the very bottom. Deltas form and macrophytes colonize the shallows. Birds bring in more creatures. And so on. Succession is the engine of destiny and trophic status its shibboleth.

As Nature tames the unruly lake over time, one thing replaces another. As a lake undergoes its natural succession from oligotrophic to highly productive eutrophic lake, its beauty mellows and it surrenders to the complexities of destiny. Minimalism yields to a baroque richness that, in turn, heralds extinction. The lake shrinks to a swamp then buries itself under a meadow.

We hold ourselves apart from our profligate nature. But we aren’t unique. We are more part of Nature than we admit. Using the thread of epigenetics and horizontal gene transfer, Nature stitches in us a moving tapestry of terrible irony. The irony lies in our conviction that we were made in the inimitable divine image of God. That we are special. Yet over a third of the human population is secular—atheists and agnostics—who do not believe in God. Or anything, for that matter. 

Water flows endlessly through us, whether we’re devout Catholics or empty vessels with no purpose. Water makes no distinction. It flows through us even after we bury ourselves.

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Log in water, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In the following excerpt from Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx uses a mix of senses—but mostly smell—in an evocative description of two shirts to symbolize a love loss:

The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack, but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands. 

In my short story The Way of Water, water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self- conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love.

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep.

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” released in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. Ecology of Story: World as Character is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

Ecology of Story: Place as Metaphor

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Birds flying over Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Ray Bradbury once told me that everything in story is metaphor. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact. Metaphor is the subtext that provides subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge.

This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism that primarily comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms). Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into a lot of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “He took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country”; (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate.” (seventeen words).

Place Personified

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Old yellow birch tree in Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Personification is powerful metaphor that gives nonhuman things human qualities. It personalizes, energizes and emotionalizes. Place described through personification can illuminate both characters and their environment in compelling ways. By giving an object, place, or animal the qualities of a person, personification provides subtle aspects of mood and links the reader to a cocktail subtext of human feelings and struggles. Personification can connect the reader to “lifeless” objects such as water, soil, rock, the sun, moon, planet, concrete, paper, etc., to map the larger meaning of the story. Putting a character’s feelings into the objects around her—as POV character—creates a subtle but deep connection with the reader: “The darkness embraced her”; “The open-throated roar of the river pulled her near.”

D.H. Lawrence’s creates strong personification of Thomas Hardy’s Egdon Heath in Return of the Native:

…Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.

In The Handmaid’s Tale—a dystopian tale of oppression and intrigue—Margaret Atwood writes:

There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently … Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in.

Martin Nolan’s Still Point creates powerful imagery of a storm aftermath through an abandoned old shed and contrasts its loneliness to the half-wild woods nearby:

A deserted shed by the road, buckling under its roof, kneels into the tall grass. The woods beyond it hide the river … I turn back to the half-wild woods. These trees speak to each other, are wild enough for that. They live together, holding the riverbanks in place.

Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem—set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution—follows Wenji Ye, disillusioned by the massive environmental deforestation in the labour camps she is sent to work:

Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left. The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain …

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Clearcut in Gordon Valley, British Columbia (photo by T.J. Watts)

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Water is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us.

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from “The Ecology of Story: World as Character” due in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

 

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. Ecology of Story: World as Character is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

Microsoft Word - Three Writing Guides.docx

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

 

 

Importance of Setting in a Novel

I travel, always arriving in the same place—Dejan Stojanovic, The Shape

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Mountain cabin in Switzerland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Setting grounds your writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of your story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting serves multipurpose roles in story. It helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Setting, like the force in Star Wars, provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning.

Place Your Story

According to acclaimed novelist Richard Russo, if you’re not writing stories that occur in a specific place, you’re missing the opportunity to add depth and character to your writing. We are creatures of our environment, adds Robert Louis Stevenson. Our outlook on life is colored by the setting in which we find ourselves. Editors have told me that they have little faith in the vision of writers who don’t clearly depict the world their characters inhabit. Imagine Thomas Hardy’s characters without Egdon Heath or Scarlet O’Hara without her beloved Tara or Dorothy without the Land of Oz.

Setting includes time, place and circumstance. These three form a kind of critical mass that creates the particular setting best suited to your story. If you change any of these it will affect the quality of the others.

Setting as Character

EcologyOfStorySettings can not only have character; they can be a character in their own right. A novelist, when portraying several characters, may often find herself painting a portrait of “place”. This is setting being “character”. The setting functions as a catalyst, and molds the more traditional characters that animate a story. The central character is often really the place, which is often linked to the protagonist. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Frodo is very much an extension of his beloved Shire.

D.H. Lawrence suggested that Egdon Heath was the most important character in Thomas Hardy’s book Return of the Native:

Egdon, whose dark soil was strong and crude and organic as the body of a beast.–D.H. Lawrence on Return of the Native

 

Setting, then, comes to mean so much more. Setting personified. Setting ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story.

Setting as Metaphor

When you choose your setting, remember that its primary metaphoric role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

In Bong Joon-Ho’s motion picture Snowpiercer, about a train careering the world with the remains of humanity, place and destiny are welded together in tight metaphor. The train “is the world”. This dark surrealistic allegory examines all iterations of place in a class struggle between the front and tail ends of the train. In an early scene, one of the the ruling class evokes her own metaphors to remind the lower class of their place:

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station…Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat snowpiercer-mason-shoebelongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.

In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine: all things flow from the sacred engine, all things in their place, all passengers in their section, all water flowing, all heat rising, pays homage to the sacred engine, in its own particular preordained position. So it is.

Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.

When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”–Minister Mason in Snowpiercer

 

Russo tells us that place is crucial to human destiny and the formation of human personality. “The more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel,” says Russo. This is not an oxymoron, but an example of the principle of a truism, which comes to us in the form of paradox (like all good truisms).

Detail provides the color and texture of your story and helps it resonate with a sense of place. This does not necessarily translate into lots of exposition; but it does require creative choice of words. So, instead of “John took a drag from his cigarette as he drove his sports car along a winding road in the country” (twenty words) try something like “Vinnie sucked on a Camel as his red Corvette careered the hair-pinned curves of Hell’s Gate” (seventeen words).

Setting & Emotion

The setting may amplify a character’s emotions or contradict them, depending on the circumstance of the character, her mood, disposition, tendencies, and observational skills. And the kind of story you’re telling. Either way, setting provides an “emotional landscape” upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony. The writer should think of the less obvious, of contrast, and how you can increase tension and emphasize the character’s situation.

Setting as Weather

Weather conveys the mood and tone of both story and character. Weather is not just part of the scenery. To a writer, weather is a device used in plot and theme. A good example is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and how he used the desert setting and the hot winds to evoke mood, character, tension, theme and ultimately story:

“The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East”–Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

In summary, here are some suggestions that will help you create vivid, memorable and meaningful settings:

  • Don’t “tack” setting in; make it an integral part of the story; give it purpose
  • Describe selectively and with purpose—through integration in “scene” rather than exposition
  • Be specific (e.g., soft pink rose, not flower; beat up Chevy, not car; old clapboard cottage, not house)
  • FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webUse similes, metaphors, and personification to breathe life into setting
  • Use the senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, feel
  • Don’t tell, show (e.g., don’t say the time is the 1920s; show the cars and dresses. Don’t tell the reader it’s raining; show them by describing the dripping trees, etc.)
  • Compare and contrast settings and relate them to the point of view characters
  • Don’t describe setting all at once in the beginning; work it in slowly throughout the story; let it unfold as the story does

 

This article is an excerpt from Chapter H of The Fiction Writer: Get Pubished, Write Now! and will be the main theme of my upcoming writing guidebook Ecology of Story: World as Character.

 

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.