Earthstar Goes To Tea

Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) on mossy cedar growing on rotting cedar logs of Trent swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar lived in a verdant cedar forest, under a soft dappled light, where the fresh smell of moss and loam mixed with the pungency of cedar. It was a good life, thought Earthstar, gazing up at the tall canopy of green above her. She lived among many like her, scattered on and between old cedar logs that had piled on the ground and rotted into a rich woody ‘soil.’ It was just right for earthstars who grew deep in the warm, moist rot, covered in a carpet of moss and ferns. Cedar saplings had even sprouted on the rotting log piles, and grown into large mature trees. That was not surprising, given the number of caches the red squirrels left on the spongy rotting logs.

Red squirrel on a tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fully opened Earthstar and sister buds in mossy humus of rotting cedar logs, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she was just a young bud, Earthstar had pushed herself up from her parent mycelium through the woody humus then cracked open her outer shell to reveal her inner spore sac and beaked mouth. The outer shell formed arms of a ‘star’ that pushed back, raising her up to meet the world. When she surveyed her mossy terrain, she noticed that she was one of the earliest earthstars to emerge. Most of her sisters were still budding through the moss and duff. She was eager to fulfill her path. Soon she would be ready to deliver her precious spores to the world—

“Hey there!” a beaky voice called to her.

Earthstar recognized a Beaked Earthstar ambling along the rot pile using its outer skin ‘legs.’ She herself was a Collared Earthstar, and although she had long dislodged from the woody soil and become independent of the ground she sat on, she didn’t normally walk about like this Beaked Earthstar, known for its itinerant lifestyle. He was a rare and somewhat mysterious earthstar, not often seen, and somewhat of a legend. In fact, it was the first time she saw him and she felt tickled that he’d stopped in his wanderings to greet her.

Beaked earthstar, showing many arms that keep it upright, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“I’m on my way to town,” said Beaky cheerfully. “Want to come along? There’s so much more to see than this silly forest.”

“No thanks,” said Earthstar, overcoming the flush of excitement at being invited by this exotic drifter. She’d heard about ‘the town’ but knew nothing of it—and decided she didn’t want to. Besides, the forest wasn’t silly, she thought peevishly. It was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.

“Suit yourself,” said Beaky. “But you don’t know what you’re missing! There’s a river out there, and strange but wonderful creatures and moving things on wheels that carry them from place to place. And the fine ladies have something called ‘High Tea,’ which is quite splendid.”

“I think this forest is quite splendid enough,” she retorted a little rudely.

“Ah… But you won’t truly know your place until you’re out of place,” Beaky said. Then with a slight nod of his beaky head, he left her and soon disappeared along the forest path that wound its way into somewhere.

What did Beaky mean by his last comment? wondered Earthstar. How can one be out of place? And why would one wish to be? As time went by, Earthstar began to wonder about that ‘somewhere’ and those wonderful creatures and fine ladies and that thing called ‘High Tea.’ And before she realized it, she was no longer content. She became very curious about that ‘somewhere’ that lay beyond her forest home.

In a sudden thrilling act, Earthstar decided to leave the forest to see the world. And once she thought of it, she did it. That’s the way of earthstars. So, within moments, Earthstar was wandering along the same forest path that Beaky had earlier taken. She took Moss with her, tucked safely inside her ‘legs’ as companion.

Path, damp from a morning rain, through cedar swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar rests on small root snag on leaf-strewn trail through Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Path through Trent cedar swamp forest with ash and poplar in early fall, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The path wound through dense cedar forest, mixed with birch, ash, poplar and the occasional oak and maple tree. Earthstar passed many relatives. Flaming waxcaps dotted the rotting logs and ground, looking like dance partners. Graceful Fairy Fingers thrust up through the duff on either side of the path along with Ashen Coral fungi, whose delicate ‘fingers’ reached up like praying hands. By the feet of one poplar tree, Earthstar saw a party of Scaly Ink Caps loitering on one side and Striate Bird’s Nest fungi having a party on the other. Stalwart boletes towered majestic, anchored to a mossy slope. A single shield mushroom with its smart lilac cap had burst out of a cedar stump and leaned into the sun with joy.

Waxcaps on decaying cedar wood in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fairy Fingers in cedar duff in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ashen coral fungi on ground of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scaly ink caps growing at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Striated Bird’s Nest fungi at the base of a poplar tree in Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Bolete on mossy hill of Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Shield fungus grows out of rotting cedar stump in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A group of Scaly Pholiota graced an old maple tree and not much farther a gaggle of Wolf’s Milk spread orange fungus joy over a decaying log. Conifer Tufts created a fairy ring around an old ash tree. Witches hats stood at the feet of a huge cedar tree, bowing with shy wisdom to her. There was a cheerful family of brilliant Scarlet Fairy Helmets tucked in the mossy undergrowth of a buckthorn thicket.  She even saw a crowd of her closest relatives, Lycoperdon puffballs clutching a rotting birch log, and waved to them.

Scaly Pholiota on an old maple tree in Trent mixed cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Wolf’s Milk slime mould on rotting log in Trent forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Conifer Tufts form a fairy ring around an old ash tree in Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Witches hats nestled at base of a cedar tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Scarlet Fairy Helmets in mossy undergrowth of cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Lycoperdon puffballs on decaying birch log, Trent cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eventually, the forest opened into fields and thickets and the path became rocky. The dense cool cedar-scented air of the deep forest gave way to a fragrant floral breeze and the warmth of the sun touched Earthstar with rays of good tidings.

Earthstar on rocky path out of Trent cedar forest into open area, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar negotiates the rocky path on her way out of the Trent forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Soon Earthstar reached a road and thought to follow it to town. Within moments a huge thing on wheels barrelled toward her! She froze in terror. But the cheerful wind whisked her out from under the wheel in the nick of time.

Earthstar almost gets run over by a car!

Earthstar thanked the wind and continued down the road, certain that the thing on wheels was what Beaky had mentioned and that she’d soon find the town and the river and those wonderful beings at the end of the road. And perhaps there she would encounter this marvelous “High Tea.”

Earthstar keeps to the side of the road with busy traffic
Countryside near Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The road took Earthstar through an open countryside of meadows, flowers and trees. Earthstar kept to the side of the road to avoid getting squashed and soon found the river Beaky had mentioned. The river was magnificent. Sparkling in the radiant sun, it danced and lapped against the shore with the gurgling rush of laughter around the rocks and reeds.

The shallows of the Otonabee River, showing diatom-froth, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Earthstar on Rotary Trail as bicycles bear down on her (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Sensing the lateness of the day, Earthstar continued her journey in search of “High Tea.” She wasn’t quite sure where she’d find it and followed the river on a trail through a black walnut forest.

Earthstar passed a large building with an open lawn just as a loud bell sounded and large beings with legs spilled out onto the trail. They chattered about their lit class and laughed as Lillie, one of the students, recounted her scifi story about flying giant tardigrades that terrorized human cities for destroying the planet.

Attack of the giant tardigrades (image by Ramul in Deviant Art)

“Tardigrades are the coolest creatures,” Lillie went on. “Some people think they’re from outer space and lived among the stars. They can handle extreme temperature, the vacuum of space, and radiation, after all. And water bears can even survive a bullet impact!”

The students didn’t notice Earthstar below them.
She was so tiny after all!

Earthstar (and her moss companion) gets underfoot near the high school (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Just as the dark shadow of a giant foot loomed over her, someone shouted, “Wait, Marcus, STOP! Look!”

Earthstar was snatched off the ground before Marcus could step on her and gently cupped in the girl’s hand where the little fungus felt finally safe. “It’s an earthstar!” said the girl holding her. “How cute! See the bit of moss clutched in its arm? How adorable!”

“But, Emily, what d’you think it’s doing here on the trail by the school?” Marcus asked the girl holding Earthstar. “How did it get here?” Marcus suddenly grinned with inspiration and turned to Lillie, eyes sparkling. “Or did your giant space tardigrade drop it here? Which means we’re in your story–“

Lillie elbowed him and said something Earthstar didn’t understand.

Emily looked down at Earthstar, who sat quietly in her palm. “They’re the only mushrooms that move. Earthstars. I’ve read about them.” Emily then bent low and carefully set Earthstar on the grass by the trail, out of harm’s way.

“Maybe it’s on ‘walkabout,’” Lillie suggested, inspired by the thought of travel.

“You mean floatabout!” Marcus laughed. “If it came all the way from Australia it’d have to float across the Pacific Ocean!”

The students giggled, visualizing little Earthstar floating on a leaf and braving the vast ocean then hitchhiking across the North American continent into the Kawarthas. Still discussing the earthstar’s epic journey, they went on their way, leaving Earthstar on the grass.

Earthstar continued her journey, wondering what ‘walkabout’ meant. She found another large building and thought this might be where she needed to go. When one of the giant beings walked out through a door, she slid inside.

Earthstar and her Moss companion make it inside the condo complex (photo by Nina Munteanu)

She found herself in a wonderfully lit atrium with many more doors and lost herself among the indoor plants under large skylights. Within moments, as if sensing her presence, one of the large beings stepped out from a doorway and immediately saw Earthstar, perched by one of the indoor gardens.

“Well, well, what do we have here? A wandering earthstar and her little moss companion!” The being picked Earthstar up and gently cupped Earthstar in its hand. “Would you like to join me for tea?”

Earthstar in lady’s hand (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The magic word! Tea!

Earthstar jiggled on her ‘legs’ with joy. Was this being one of those fine ladies? As if sensing her excitement, the lady smiled and brought Earthstar inside her apartment.

The lady brought them outside to the patio for tea, where she had laid out tiny sandwiches, cheeses, crackers, scones with jam, and lovely pastries. Of course, Earthstar did not partake in these strange foods—being a saprophyte, she fed exclusively on decaying matter. But she enjoyed the ambience of this civilized celebration. And, of course, the tea!

Lady serving the tea (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When the lady went inside to replenish the tea, Earthstar explored the patio. Mistake!
Moments after Earthstar dropped to the patio bricks with the help of a little breeze, a very large dog (well, a rather small dog for you and me) came bounding to her and gave her a lick. The dog might have eaten her but the lady returned and rescued Earthstar.

Poppy the dog licks Earthstar! (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Oh, my! Don’t mind Poppy, the neighbour’s shiatzu,” the lady said to Earthstar. “Poppy is harmless and only eats dog treats. I don’t think you’re a dog treat, are you?”

Earthstar dipping her feet into the water of the bird bath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking to get her to safety, the lady placed Earthstar on the edge of the birdbath where Earthstar dipped her tired feet. Within moments a mischievous wind pushed Earthstar into the water! Luckily, Earthstar floated. She was accustomed to deluges of water that filled her ‘collar’ and raised her spore sac to better deliver her spores. Water was an earthstar’s friend; earthstars counted on the beating drops of rain to help release their spores. After the initial shock, Earthstar rather enjoyed the swim.

Earthstar swims happily in the birdbath (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The lady thought she ought to rescue Earthstar again and put her back down on the patio. Then the whistle of the kettle inside drew the lady away to the house. In that short time, a clever black squirrel, who had been spying from the silver maple tree nearby, leaped forward and seized her!

Earthstar about to be snatched by the black squirrel (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Mine!” he shouted to himself and bounded away with her clutched in his mouth. After waiting for an oncoming bicycle, he raced across the trail–just inches in front of the zooming bicycle (squirrels are daredevils at heart)–and entered the little wood by the river.

Earthstar screamed. But no one heard her, because it was a silent scream.  

The black squirrel took his prize to a huge old willow tree by the river. The tree bowed over a small path as if reaching down to say hello. The squirrel left Earthstar on the bowing tree to dry like he would any mushroom for later caching. Then he scurried away to look for more food.  What this city squirrel didn’t know was that—unlike most other mushrooms—earthstars can move!

Old willow of the riparian forest by the Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Earthstar let the wind blow her off the branch to the ground where she used her six arms to carry her back to the trail and back to the lady’s place.
“Where have you been?” asked the lady when Earthstar got there. Her eyes seemed to wink. “I suspect you were on a small adventure with squirrels.”

Driving Earthstar home to the forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

They continued their tea and when it was finished, the lady took Earthstar in her car and drove Earthstar home to the forest. Earthstar didn’t wonder how the lady knew where Earthstar’s home was; there is only one place where earthstars grew in the region. And no doubt the lady—being a true lady—knew where that was and respected the earthstars place in the world.

Cedar trees covered in moss, growing on ancient rotting cedar logs of the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Fern-like moss grows on cedar roots that dig into old decaying cedar logs of the forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When they reached the deep forest where the tall cedars covered the sky with green and the air stirred with the breaths of cedar and birch, Earthstar felt the exhilaration of coming home. She did not need to rely on the vagaries of a capricious wind to deliver her safely home; the kind hand of the lady set her down on the soft downy surface of woody loam. The lady set Earthstar right beside her sisters, her tiny moss companion still with her, tucked under her arm.

Gently placing Earthstar back home by several earthstar buds in moss of decaying cedars, cedar forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest was her home. It nourished her. It was where her family was. Earthstar was content.
And this time she really was…

~~The End~~

Moss-covered red bark of cedar tree in the cedar swamp forest, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Trent Nature Sanctuary

Located in the southeast corner of Symons Campus of Trent University, the Wildlife Sanctuary Nature Area includes many types of ecosystems and a network of trails. Wetlands of the area are deemed Provincially Significant by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. The cedar/maple swamps of the sanctuary support a rich diversity of fungi and lichen amid a rich ecosystem of plants and animals of the forest. It is within this area that I keep discovering interesting life each time I visit. Virtually all the images of the forest and fungi in this article come from this sanctuary, including the Collared Earthstar.

Mossy cedars in the cedar swamp forest of the Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Information on the Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

Eight stages of the Collared Earthstar life cycle, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON: 1) buds emerge in late summer; 2) the outer layer begins to crack in early fall; 3) the bud cracks open; 4) then spreads open; 5) forming a ‘flower’; 6) the outer layer cracks; 7) to form the ‘collar’ by early fall; 8) the outer layer shrivels by early winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Life Cycle

The Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex) is a Gasteromycete or stomach fungus, since it produces and releases its spores inside a saclike structure. The earthstar spends most of the year as a network of fungal cells (mycelia) that penetrate the soil and digest decaying organic material. When they are ready to reproduce, the mycelium develops the “earthstar” above ground. New earthstars emerge as ‘buds’ and develop in late summer and autumn through into winter. The matured fruiting bodies will survive the winter to be discovered the following spring by curious explorers like me. 

Spore sacs of Collared Earthstar in the frosts of winter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Geo means earth and astrum means star. The species name triplex, which means ‘having three layers,’ refers to the way the ‘star’ arms of the outer layer crack when they peel back, making it look like the spore-sac is sitting on a dish. The three layers allow the earthstar to do something no other fungus can do: move. When it rains, the two outer layers of the peridium split and peel back, forming a ‘star’ with 4-12 rays. The rays spread with enough force to push aside leaves, raising the spore-filled sac above the surrounding debris. The rays often lift the earthstar high enough to break the connection to the parent mycelium, releasing the earthstar from its sedentary position. Detached, the earthstar can move with wind or rain to better spread its spores.

Finger poking the spore sac helps release the spores (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Fruiting bodies are large, 5-10 cm in diameter. Spores escape from the apical pointed hole (peristome) as breezes blow across it. Much larger puffs are released when raindrops hit and compress the spore-sac—or an interfering finger depresses the sac. What escapes is a powdery gleba (which distributes the tiny spores). The sides of the peristome ‘beak’ are fibrous and appear slightly ragged.

Several stages of the Collared Earthstar, from buds to opening ‘flower’
Early budding stage of Collared Earthstar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

After a late summer / autumn rain, the collared earthstar emerges from the leaf litter looking like a Hershey’s kiss or a fancy bulb-shaped truffle dusted in fine cocoa. Only the outer layer (exoperidium) is visible, peeking out of the litter and loam. The outer layer eventually cracks open, looking like a coconut husk and splits into five to seven ‘arms’ to form a star. Inside is revealed a tan to grey-coloured spore-sac (endoperidium) with a fringed beak (peristome) and its opening (ostiole). The endoperidium, or spore sac, is more like an elastic membrane resembling rubber that holds the gleba (spore-bearing mass). The star arms peel back and down, eventually cracking to form the ‘saucer’ which the round fruiting body (spore sac) sits on. The spore sac contains a mass of spores and fertile mycelial tissue, called the gleba that is white, fibrous and firm when young, but turns brown and powdery as it ages. A network of cells (capillatum) help spores move to the pore when a raindrop strikes the endoperidium. The columella, a bulbous sterile base at the centre of the spore-producing gleba forms ‘columns’ that radiate out to help spore dispersal.

Over time, the outer layer of ‘stars’ (exoperidium) form a reticulated pattern of cracks and fissures that deepen into golden-brown colours as they decompose and curl downward to lift the spore-sac farther up. The sac also grows more pale and papery. 

Parts of Collared Earthstar (photos by Nina Munteanu)
Just opened Collared Earthstar, not yet showing the ‘collar’ formed by cracking of exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Good example of a more mature opened Collared Earthstar, showing the ‘collar’ formed by separation of exoperidium and extended curled back ‘arms’ (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Mature Collared Earthstar, showing papery spore sac sitting on reticulated exoperidium (photo by Nina Munteanu)

However, in the rain, the sac reverts to a rubbery consistency and deepens to a dark shiny tan colour. I was surprised by its elasticity; this time when I poked it, the sac sprang back to its round sphere like a thick balloon. 

Mature Collared Earthstar; left in rain, right in dry weather (photos by Nina Munteanu)

Collared Earthstar Habitat

I also learned that the collared earthstar prefers a habitat of leaf litter in deciduous woods, especially beech on chalky soils. However, researchers acknowledge that the collared earthstar is also found under coniferous trees, especially on sloping ground—which better describes where I found them, in this cedar-birch forest of the Kawarthas. Geastrum triplex is a saprophytic organism: it gets its nutrients from decomposing organic matter—such as well-rotted cedar trees, where humus has accumulated—by further breaking down the organic matter then, in turn, returns those nutrients to the soil to complete the cycle. It does this by releasing enzymes to break down and digest the lignin, cellulose or chitin in these materials, converting them to soluble compounds that can be absorbed by them, and by plants, as nutrients. Earthstars, like all fungi, play a vital role in reducing the accumulation of dead organic material and in recycling essential nutrients, particularly carbon and nitrogen. If not for fungi, forests would choke under a mountain of logs and leaves.

References:

Ellis JB, Ellis MB. 1990. “Fungi without Gills (Hymenomycetes and Gasteromycetes): an Identification Handbook. ”Chapman and Hall. London. ISBN 0-412-36970-2.

First Nature. “Geastrum triplexJungh.—Collared Earthstar” Online: https://www.first-nature.com/fungi/geastrum-triplex.php

Kirk, Paul M., Paul F. Cannon, David W. Minter and J. A. Stalpers. 2008. “Dictionary of the Fungi.” CABI, 2008

Kuo M. 2008. Geastrum triplexMushroomExpert.Com

Roel, Thomas. 2017. “#044: Mushroom Morphology: Earthstars.” Fungus Fact Friday.

Roody WC. 2003. “Mushrooms of West Virginia and the Central Appalachians.” University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. p. 443. ISBN 0-8131-9039-8.

Torpoco V, Garbarino JA (1998). “Studies on Chilean fungi. I. Metabolites from Geastrum triplex Jungh”. Boletin de la Sociedad Chilena de Quimica43 (2): 227–29.

Woodland Trust. “Collared Earthstar.” Online: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/fungi-and-lichens/collared-earthstar/

Pegler, D.N., Laessoe, T. & Spooner, B.M. 1995. “British Puffballs, Earthstars and Stinkhorns.”Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Utah State University. “Earthstars.” Online: https://www.usu.edu/herbarium/education/fun-facts-about-fungi/earth-stars

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Paradox in the Details: The Role of Place in Story

Nina Munteanu at When Words Collide 2021

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Story and I used many examples from a wide range of literature to overview topics covered in the book, such as:

  • Place as character & archetype
  • Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)
  • Place and first impressions (openings)
  • Place and emotion (over time and by POV)
  • Place through the senses
  • Place as environmental force (including climate change)

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, among others.

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox in the details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that resonate with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts.

Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor.

Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several writing exercises and detailed case studies.

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Write What You Know–Write “From the Inside Out”

Snowtreeghosts2

Trees in snow and fog, Ontario

When I first heard the writer’s edict “write what you know” I rejoined: but I write science fiction—I write about the unknown. What I still had to learn was that by describing “the other” SF really describes “us”. We explore ourselves through our relationship with the unknown. We do this by ensuring that all our plotlines reflect theme.

Write About What You Know

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

 

SONY DSC

Nina Munteanu hikes along Highland Creek, Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

Writing about what you know isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside your heart. Write from the inside out. Write about what excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

Writers can use our own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb or the hair-raising trepidation of walking into a dark place. Use these sensations to make your writing more sensual with added dimensions of reality.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

tree water deer lake

Deer Lake, Burnaby, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.
Rachell Gardner

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

An excerpt of this article appeared in CBC’s Canada Writes.

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What POV are You Using and Why?

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Cedars with woodpecker holes, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The story’s viewpoint can be told from several perspectives and which one you choose can be critical to how your story comes across.

Different stories lend themselves to different narrative styles and point of views (POVs). In his April 2000 article in Fiction Writer entitled “First Blood, Third Person” David Morrell warns that some writers may “select a viewpoint merely because it feels natural, but if you…don’t consider the implications of your choice…your story might fight you until you abandon it, blaming the plot when actually the problem is how you’re telling it.”

The viewpoint choices include:

  • Omniscient
  • Third person limited
  • Second person
  • First person

Omniscient View

The omniscient view is the broadest view. Through this viewpoint the narrator describes everything and everyone and may drop into any character at any time, and — in the case of a beginning writer — all too confusingly in the same paragraph.

While this POV is the easiest one to use it is really the hardest to master. In the wrong hands, this viewpoint can be as intrusive as it is distancing. And it is prone to polemic. In the hands of a masterful writer, this viewpoint can make for the most powerful and rich storytelling. Epics of any kind, especially epic fantasies or historical epics, lend themselves to this style. The omniscient viewpoint is particularly suited to a story that is “large”, where ultimately the main character is not any particular protagonist but “the story” itself, or a society or world or time period. The writer must still somehow achieve connection and intimacy with the reader to succeed with this viewpoint. You can do this through lyrical and compelling narrative, poetic language and powerful imagery.

Limited Third Person Viewpoint

A story told through limited third person POV is narrated from one or a few key characters (though not at the same time) by revealing not only their movements but their thoughts and feelings (e.g., he struggled up to his feet, giddy with pain). When starting out, it is often best to adopt this style, which is generally more personal, appealing and least confusing. So long as you respect the readers’ need for clarity by keeping to one POV per scene, you can choose to enter into the heads of as many characters as you wish. It is the norm to use chapter, section or scene breaks when changing from one POV to another.

This style of narrative is the most common one used in contemporary books, particularly genre books, thrillers and action/adventure books. Through conflicting perspectives of your characters, you can swiftly paint a rich tapestry of tension for both characters and reader.

Second Person Viewpoint

This second person viewpoint (“you”) is not often used, mostly because it is both distancing and less easy to read. Although it is a narrative often used in conversation (e.g., “you never know what you’re gonna get with a box of chocolates, do you?”) this style of narrative is harder for readers to embrace and get close to the story’s characters. This viewpoint works effectively in certain artistic situations when you wish to purposefully impart a distance to the narrator, due to their own limitations, infirmity or situation.

First Person Viewpoint

The first person point of view is both the most limiting perspective (told only through one viewpoint) and most personal and revealing (of that viewpoint character). This viewpoint works well in literary fiction where the main character’s thoughts and issues are the key focus in the story. When the character who changes the most is the one telling the story, this makes for very compelling reading.

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Base of cedar tree, Little Rouge woodland, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Many detective stories are told in first person to great effect. The reader is right there with the detective, solving the mystery. The first person viewpoint is also the preferred POV for memoirs, for obvious reasons.

One thing to keep in mind, particularly when narrating through the first person POV, is the reliability of your character. You need to decide how reliable your first person POV character is in telling the story and how you will impart this to the reader.  Writing through a character’s faulty perception of the world (and of themselves) provides a writer with an incredible opportunity but also an incredible challenge. You can only go so far with an unreliable character before losing your own credibility as a writer — and losing the reader in the long run. Obviously, you need a balance.

If you are struggling with your story and can’t quite pinpoint what is bogging it down, try changing how you are telling it. Change the viewpoint and see what happens.

References

Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate. Louisville, KY. 266pp.

FictionWriter-front cover-2nd ed-webThe Fiction Writer “is the most practical book on publishing that I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all! Not only is each chapter packed with advice for writers at every level of the publishing process, but the text is highly readable and even entertaining. The clear format, the direct style and the playful layout keep the large volume of information from ever becoming dry or boring.

This book is aimed at anyone interested in gaining entrance to the world of publishing, whether you want to write sci-fi novels, poetry, children’s books, how-to books, or magazine articles. If you want to publish with the big-name pros or even self-publish, this book will help you decide what would suit you best and how to achieve it.”

Lucia Gorea, English professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

nina-2014aaaNina 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. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.

Write What You Know–Write “From the Inside Out”

Canadian ForestWhen I first heard the writer’s edict “write what you know” I rejoined: but I write science fiction—I write about the unknown. What I still had to learn was that by describing “the other” SF really describes “us”. We explore ourselves through our relationship with the unknown. We do this by ensuring that all our plotlines reflect theme.

Write About What You Know

How many times have you been told to write about what you know? And how many times have you trusted that advice? Well, how interesting is that?!? We think our lives are dull, boring, and mundane. We write – and read – to get away from it, don’t we?

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Nina Munteanu

Well, yes…and no…

In the final analysis, even good “escapist” writing, like some science fiction, despite its alien settings and creatures of imagination, is grounded in the realities of our every-day lives, which form the basis of human nature. Love, ambition, trust, hate, envy, honor, courage. All these are universal human traits which the writer taps into and ultimately writes about.

“In the 19th century, John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things that he knew,” say Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux in The Writer’s Guide to Creativity. “Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world.”

Writing about what you know isn’t about literal truths; it’s about what you know inside your heart. Write from the inside out. Write about what excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. As SF author Marg Gilks says, “You know more than you think.”

Twisted Truths & Inner Knowledge

Writers can use our own knowledge and experiences in everyday life and translate them into something far from ordinary. You start with universal experiences.

Get Emotional

What excites you; what frightens you; what angers you, makes you sad, happy. These are emotions we all feel. When we give our characters experiences similar to our own, we breathe life into both character and experience and provide the reader an anchor for her heart.

Get Sensational

You know how it feels to have your knees shake with fatigue after a long climb or the hair-raising trepidation of walking into a dark place. Use these sensations to make your writing more sensual with added dimensions of reality.

Get People Around You

My neighbor has a funny way of focusing his gaze slightly off me when he talks, like he can’t look me directly in the eyes. When he approaches my house to deliver the paper, Dennis strides with a lilting gait as he listens to hip-hop on his ipod.

Drawing from what you observe and know of the people around you is one of a writer’s most treasured resources for character description. I always carry a notebook with me no matter where I go, even if it’s only to the grocery store.

The Magic of Storytelling

A writer is like a magician. You play upon what readers all “know” then surprise them with the unexpected.

Unleashing your imagination and letting it soar while grounding yourself in the realities of universal truths is the stuff of which stories are made. This is what most of us mean when we say “write what you know.”

“Unless you are writing about a personal tragedy,” says Tina Morgan of Fiction Factor, “you will have to use your imagination. Use the creativity that drives you to write in the first place. Take those feelings you have every day and amplify them. Make them more intense, more vivid. Before you know it, you will be ‘writing what you know’.”

“Next time you hear ‘write what you know,’ ” says Gilks, “you’ll realize that you know an awful lot about what matters most in a story’s success. It’s waiting only to be shaped by your imagination.”

Write Real

Literary Agent, Rachelle Gardner, provided a great definition of “write what you know” on her blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Most people think “write what you know” means you have to put characters in situations you’re personally familiar with. If you’re a mom with five kids, you should write a mom story. If you’ve fought cancer and won, you should write about that. But in my opinion, that’s not what it means.

Write what you know means write with authenticity about thoughts, feelings, experiences of life. Be honest. Write from a deep place. Don’t write from the surface. Whether you’re writing about parenthood or cancer or anything else… be real.
Rachell Gardner

Don’t reflect what you know from other people or the media… write what you know from your own inner life.

An excerpt of this article appeared in CBC’s Canada Writes.

Nina-CanadaWrites2012

Stoking the Scintillation of Inspiration

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Walking along the Credit River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Many of us wish we were more creative,” Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, shares. “Many of us sense we are more creative, but unable to effectively tap that creativity. Our dreams elude us. Our lives feel somehow flat. Often, we have great ideas, wonderful dreams, but are unable to actualize them for ourselves. Sometimes we have specific creative longings we would love to be able to fulfill … we hunger for what might be called creative living.”

Many of us are, in fact, creatively blocked. How would you know if you were? Jealousy is an excellent clue. Are there creative people you resent? Do you tell yourself, ‘I could do that, if only…’ An old friend of mine used to constantly share that he would “start living and settle down” once he had enough money. It never happened; and he never did—twenty years later. That was sad; because he was waiting for life to begin, when it was already happening—and he was missing it.

Creative recovery (or discovery) is something you can learn. It is something you can enhance and direct. “As you learn to recognize, nurture, and protect your inner artist,” says Cameron, “you will be able to move beyond pain and creative constriction. You will learn ways to recognize and resolve fear, remove emotional scar tissue, and strengthen your confidence.”

Stoking the creative artist inside you may be as simple as giving your mind the chance to wander—and taking the time to pay attention. Rhythm and regular, repetitive actions play a role in priming the artistic well. Cameron lightheartedly describes how the “s” activities work so well for this: showering, swimming, scrubbing, shaving, steering a car. I can testify to the latter—how many great plot ideas have I cooked up while driving to work! Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claimed that his best ideas came to him while he was driving the freeway. Negotiating through the flow of traffic triggered the artist-brain with images that translated into ideas. “Why do I get my best ideas in the shower?” Einstein was known to have remarked. Scientists tell us that this is because showering is an artist-brain activity.

The magical part in this is to pay attention. Pay attention to your life experiences; don’t ignore them. Sit up in the bus and watch people, play with the images, sounds and smells. Get sensual and let your eyes, ears, nose and limbs delight in the world. It’s amazing how interesting the world becomes once you start paying attention.

Henry Miller tells us to develop interest in your daily life; in people, things, literature, and music: “the world is … simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself,” he says.

Looking outward as well as inward allows us to explore different angles and facets of the same thing. When we see the same thing through different perspectives we rediscover something new in ourselves. We create interest and connect the world to ourselves.

Julia Cameron shares that “art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck). Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans. But it is the attention to detail that stays with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art. Even in the midst of pain, this singular image brings delight. The artist who tells you different is lying.”

Brenda Ueland tells us why we should all use our creative power: “Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.”

References:

Julia Cameron. 2002. “The Artist’s Way”. Tarcher. 272pp.

Nina Munteanu. 2013. “The Journal Writer: Finding Your Voice”. Pixl Press. 132pp.

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.