Ways of Writing Wild
All stories start in a wilderness...
...For some authors, this is the tangled forest of scribbled notebooks and the shadowy land of their imagination. For others, the wilderness is the strange world of their characters, where children learn to navigate new worlds and unfamiliar people. And for many, it is the wilderness that we find in the world around us: whether it is wild moors or urban paths.
My stories always begin with a wild place.
When I wrote The Wild River, the first image I had was of a tiny woodshed in the shadow of an enormous forest. There was never much daylight in this place, where the trees spread for miles and miles.
At once, there was an adventure waiting to happen. Orla appeared soon after, and of course, she was going to go into the woods. Wild places call for wild adventures. Before long, I discovered that there was a river winding past Orla’s woodshed. Fuelled by the original excitement of this forest setting, I found myself carried off into the wilderness on a wilder adventure, with an even wilder character.
For those who wish to add a little wilderness to their storytelling—or even their lives—here are four ways of exploring the wild in your own writing:
Read wild stories
Have you ever sat reading a book at twilight, looking out into the fading light between pages? Settle down with a wild story and wait for the wilderness to seep into you. You’ll feel like a predator ready to start the night’s hunt (or, rather, story writing).
One of the earliest forest stories to inspire me was Mirkwood in The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.
"By the afternoon they had reached the eaves of Mirkwood, and were resting almost beneath the great overhanging boughs of its outer trees. Their trunks were huge and gnarled, their branches twisted, their leaves were dark and long. Ivy grew on them and trailed along the ground."
— The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
Reading it now makes me feel so close to the wild. We’re at the forest-border, where the branches overhang and trail towards you, as though they themselves are characters, reaching out to pull you into the forest. It is exciting, because it is atmospheric. It is exciting because there are hidden things in the woods. And it is exciting, because there are so many ways that the story could go.
Another of my favourites as a child was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder:
"Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees. As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods. There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them."
— The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The ‘Little House’ books are based on Laura’s real childhood experiences. The wilderness of this first book stayed with me. I wanted to be Laura so much that I went outside in a rainstorm to gather up fallen pears from the garden. I liked to imagine that I was doing something dangerous: that we depended on the food, or that there were panthers, lurking in the trees ready to pounce. Quite simply, the reality of Laura’s life filled me with just the right level of fear and anticipation. I wanted my own writing to do exactly the same thing: to bring readers to the edge of their seat, ready to flee into the forest at any moment.
For me, wilderness is the marriage of landscape with anticipation. It is the sensation that the world around us is full of wild beasts and hidden adventures. I seek out stories that conjure up this feeling: the northern forests in Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver; the gloomy landscape in Frances Hardinge’s A Skinful of Shadows. It is no coincidence that the adrenaline and excitement of these stories makes me want to write.
As a writer, books are your fuel. The wilderness is not always on your doorstep, but you can trick yourself into thinking it is.
Follow paths, get lost in the woods
You don't need to live next to a forest or a mountain. Wilderness is everywhere.
I lived near the woods as a child, where I climbed and explored and hid, pretending to be Swallows and Amazons, finding paths underneath gorse bushes and between the arms of beech trees. When we moved to the town, there were still places to explore and inspire. Our estate was next to a park, where there was a stream you could walk in, all the way to the town centre. There were overgrown cut-ways and twisting paths that surely no one else knew about: secret pathways between houses, allotments, railway tracks. Even then, people drove more than they walked. So, the paths were mine, and they were full of stories.
Ferns and bracken, taller than my head, became the setting of a fierce chase. Badger-holes and hare-scrapes became openings to underground passages. And the deadly nightshade, growing in the corner of an urban garden, made me wonder what would happen if a girl knew how to make poisons…
Take time to wander away from the usual routes. You might find that it is, after-all, a wild forest: and the stories will start to jump out at you.
Write now, write later
Take your notebook, sit in a wild place, and write down everything. When I teach writing outdoors, I encourage my students to fill their pages with words and scribbles without overthinking. They write messily, as though sketching the outdoors in words. Use all of your senses to record a place, and you begin to learn the language of the wild. Collect leaves, remember textures and smells and the way things move. You cannot always recall the sound of a bird or the shape of a flower from memory.
It is also interesting to experiment with wandering without the pressure to write. I’ll head out for a walk without a notebook and see what I can take in. Now that I work outside too, I’m forced to experience the world without trying to put it into words, and often write about it hours, days or weeks later. It turns out that this isn’t always a disadvantage: in fact, memory can help to distil the essence of a place, and I’m left with a sharper, more distinctive piece of writing that captures the heart of where I’ve been.
Orla’s garden is an amalgamation of different places I have known: both written from memory and from first-hand notes. It is exciting to explore both methods and see what works for your story.
For the whole of human history, we’ve crafted natural materials: shaped clay into pots, woven baskets from plant fibre, tanned hides and spun yarn. These activities bring us closer to nature and strengthen our psychological well-being.
Make something with your hands. Find wool to weave or dig clay from the garden. It will bring you closer to the wilderness we were once all part of, and the stories that lived alongside it.
The sense of touch is often neglected in writing. Perhaps this is because we spend so little time clinging on to the bark of trees or going barefoot through the grass. Philip Pullman is particularly adept at exploring texture and craft in his writing. Think of Lyra climbing on lead roofs, or Mary Malone building the Amber Spyglass from pine resin.
Touch connects us to our heritage. After reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (the story of Indigenous Wisdom and Plant Science), I booked myself onto a basket weaving workshop. I’ve always picked up plants when I’m walking, poked sticks. Now I’m learning to saw wood and coppice trees and make charcoal, and the stories keep coming. Even when I lived in the centre of Southampton, I found clay in the garden. Dig around, make a little pot. See what stories you can find.
Perhaps your characters never see a wild place. Perhaps they never even go outside. But this doesn’t mean that there is no wilderness in your writing. Humans – and characters – are fiery things. Next time you write dialogue, or action, or a night-time scene—let the wild in, and see where it takes you.
Photographs all authors' own.
Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.
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