Incorporating Outdoor Materials into Novels
Wm. Hovey Smith

“Write what you know,” is a hackneyed piece of advice usually given to students in grade school when they are assigned their first story to turn in at the end of class. Fast forward 70 years and the novelist sitting at his computer with a blank screen in front of him still remembers. If he happens to be a person like I am who as a professional geologist has spent much of his working life outdoors, it follows that somewhere in his novel there will be something about his likes, interest, and activities in it. If for example, the novelist is an avid sports fisherman like Hemingway, he might write “The Old Man and The Sea,” as Hemingway did.
Not everything is necessarily quite so straight forward. Maybe a prominent character in the novel is a serial killer who stalks young prostitutes in the style of Jack the Ripper. He writes very vividly about his experiences and discovers that real murders have occurred that are identical to those he describes. This coincidence is not lost on the police who become very interested in the reclusive writers’ social life. The writer fabricates a story that these experiences were actually told to him by some mysterious third person who doesn’t want to be found. This buys him some time, but the more the old cases are investigated the more similarities mount up. Now in our novel the writer is sought not only by the police who are convinced that they have a dangerous killer to catch as well as by his unseen inspirational source who warns that he is going to kill him in some particularly horrible manner when he least expects it.
If the previous paragraph sounds like the theme of a popular movie, it more or less is, but it does not mean that the novelist has to be a serial killer to use such characters in his plot. In fact, unless he is writing a novel where each of the characters is a clone of a single person, he must get some of his heros and villians from somewhere else. Otherwise these are automatons doing and thinking the same thing in an Orwellian style of experience. Somewhere in the novel there must be contrasts and conflicts that are convincingly drawn.
In the case of a serial killer the write-what-you-know model does not work. Still, if a writer is going to word-paint a convincing picture of the world he is creating or the activities that he depicts in his novel it is useful if he has actually experienced them or interviewed those who have. Readers are quick to point out obvious flaws in a novel, and delight in discovering them. Perhaps a given plant does not grow in the place where it is described? Maybe a gun cannot shoot an unlimited number of times before it is reloaded? Perhaps a given car could only reach the speeds that are described unless it was dropped from the moon?
Realistically, the writer is left with using some things that he has experienced and some things that he has not. There is a temptation when doing a novel to take the approach, “I know it, therefore I should write it.” The danger in this approach is to write long asides that do not move the action forward or say anything about character development. Yes, the reader has learned some useful and maybe fun facts; but they did not advance the plot? Such words were worthwhile as bits of information, but worthless so far as the plot went.
In “The River Runs Through It” much is made of fly fishing which is a skill taught from father to son. Although the novel takes the reader through the terrors of trench warfare during World War I where a brother is killed, the trials of The Depression, and dangers of Prohibition; fly fishing brings a degree of solace to the book and closure to the concept that “interesting people lived and died here,” but the beauty of the land remains for those who care to seek it. Very soon indeed the rivers and streams of Montana will again be lined with people casting flys in the hope of catching a nice mess of trout.
Putting outdoor content into a novel can add to the reader’s experience – even if he cannot be there himself and will never undertake the work that might have been described. To put this in the context of my own work, in my just-published novel “Father of the Grooms,” I have one of my characters go on a boar hunt in Sicily using a flintlock musket. I am a hunter, I write about black-powder guns, and have killed many wild hogs in the U.S. and one in Italy with a muzzleloading gun. What to me was a natural progression I had one of the grooms-to-be in my novel go on this hunt to demonstrate his manhood to his Mafia-dominated family.
Similarly, I took advantage of Mt. Etna and the caves on it to set a scene where an initiation ceremony was to take place to bring the Americans into the family. I may take further advantage of that dramatic setting when I write the screenplay. Another cave, The Ear of Dionysus in Syracuse is used as a reverberation chamber in which I have an uncle sing a lament in honor of the millions of Sicilians who fled their home island and were never heard from again. For centuries that cave was used to house prisoners and captives.
We, as human beings, live in our environment. The Sicilian setting of my novel and my knowledge of geology were obviously interconnected as I visited the island and crafted my novel. I think the two enriched each other. In short, chose interesting settings for your novel and do not be shy about incorporating outdoor experiences in them. This may be the only opportunity for you to expose some readers to a wider world in its beauty and complexity.

Author's Bio: 

Wm. Hovey Smith is a Professional Geologist, writer, podcast radio producer, videographer, and now novelist. He holds degrees from the University of Georgia and the University of Alaska and also attended the University of Arkansas and University of Arizona. He has written some 20 books, has 800 YouTube videos, and his radio show is still available, although no new shows have been created for over five years. The novel will be followed by a screenplay later this year and perhaps a movie in 2024.