How to be a nature writer
SHARMAINE LOVEGROVE, publisher of Dialogue Books, has teamed up with the Forestry Commission to find undiscovered nature writers. She talks to Writers Online about her own influences and engaging audiences when writing about the natural world.
This winter, I’m working with the Forestry Commission on a project to discover new voices inspired by nature. As part of its centenary in 2019, the Commission is – for the first time – seeking two writers-in-residence to tell the story of the nation’s forests.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for any writer; a chance to understand our woodlands, the people who work there and wildlife that calls them home.
When sifting through ideas and designs, I’ll be looking for innovation and imagination to tell the whole story. Our forests are full of magic and mystery, but they’re also functional landscapes, providing space for wildlife, recreation and indispensable raw materials.
I’m privileged to be involved in judging applications for the residency, but even more excited to hear from different people about what forests mean to them.
Personally, I didn’t grow up in the countryside. I was born in London, and I have spent the majority of my life in cities. But that doesn’t mean I was disconnected from nature.
Whether it was spending time in the capital’s vast public parks (Battersea Park, Wandsworth and Clapham Common were a stone’s throw from where I lived), or exploring forest trails on the edge of the city, I was always out discovering green spaces.
There I found refuge from a busy London life. I relished how being outside made me cheerful and relaxed. Importantly, I knew these sanctuaries were always there. Whenever I wanted a calmer space, there was always somewhere to go.
I love big urban hubs, and I think they are fascinating places to grow up. But everyone needs time away from the intensity of city-life. If spending time outdoors gave me some respite, books and stories took things to a whole different level.
At home, on the bus, or in some green corner of the capital, I became lost in chronicles and characters from around the world.
While my reading has never been constricted, there have been experiences that have influenced my book selection over the years. My Jamaican roots for example, led me to read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Sevlon and The Book of Night Women by Marlon James.
Similarly, my interest in politics and culture steered me to Austerlitz by WG Sebald and The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger.
Another huge influence on my life has been writings about the natural world. If I wasn’t able to physically experience faraway places, I could transport myself there through the written word.
Reading books such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Awakenings by Kathleen Jamie and Stargazing by Peter Hill really shaped my relationship with the natural world. More recently, nature memoirs such as The Outrun by Amy Liptrot or Out of the Woods by Luke Turner, and the novel Swansong by Kerry Andrew have sparked a renewed interest in how nature can play a positive, restorative role in our lives.
Finding inspiration from nature
As a publisher, people often ask me for advice about how to improve their work – nature writing included. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I hope my perspective can be of some value.
Inspiration is essential. And so it’s important to make time to enjoy the places that make you feel creative and enthused. When it comes to nature writing, this doesn’t mean you have to explore a tropical rainforest or colossal mountain range every week. It may be as simple as sitting at the edge of a local river, or sauntering through woodland close to home.
One of the best things about England is that it’s easy to reach beautiful green spaces from anywhere in the country. Even people living in the middle of big cities like Birmingham or Manchester are less than an hour’s train or bus ride from glorious British countryside.
These days I live in Bristol, which is brilliant for getting outdoors. Leigh Woods hugs the west edge of the city, while the rolling hills of the Cotswolds are less than an hour from my front door.
What do you want to achieve with your nature writing?
When putting pen to paper, it’s important to have a fair idea of what you want the work to become.
As an industry, nature writing has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. It’s no longer only perceived as diarists observing the seasons, or poets drawing inspiration from wildlife and wilder places.
Nature writing has emerged as a tool for understanding and challenging society. It can be employed to talk about and campaign on different issues. From climate change to education, threatened wildlife to mental health, to the kind of world we want in the future.
So what is your work trying to achieve? Is it a poem seeking to inspire the reader about the marvels of nature? Or a piece of long-form journalism designed to question ideas? Does it rely on science? Or stem from the heart? Or both?
In nature writing, as in other literary forms, it’s certainly not a case of one size fits all. Several recent works branded as ‘new nature writing’ have been questioned as to whether or not they constitute nature writing at all. If a book talks about the natural world but only in relation to other social issues, should it fall under a different heading altogether? That’s not a question I’m going to try to answer here, but it’s a fascinating debate nevertheless.
While some may philosophise on how a piece of work merits the nature writing label, there’s no question that all nature writers have one thing in common – an adoration of the natural world.
And that admiration is what makes nature writing so special. Whether its birds or beasts, forests or flowers, it’s essential to demonstrate what you’re passionate about, and why.
For me, that is what makes people read articles and buy books. It’s the author’s appetite for a particular subject that brings a piece of work to life.
Accessible to all
Writers are influenced by the world around them. Whether that’s people or places, experiences or dreams, there’s no telling where inspiration will come from and the moment it will strike.
What that also means is that anybody can be a writer. Why? Because everybody has a story to tell.
I’m fascinated by the way in which children are inspired by nature. I regularly take my son into the countryside and soon as we’re home, the first thing he asks is where we’re going next.
Those feelings of wonder and delight are what fuels writers of the natural world. And it’s also what draws readers to their work.
As part of its centenary in 2019, the Forestry Commission is looking for two writers-in-residence to tell the stories of the nation’s forests and help people connect with the world around them. For more information visit www.forestryengland.uk/writers
• Sharmaine Lovegrove is the publisher of Dialogue Books, the UK’s only inclusive imprint, part of Little Brown Book Group and Hachette UK. She is inspired by innovative storytelling, and has worked in public relations, bookselling, events management and TV scouting. She was the literary editor of Elle, and set up her own bookshop and creative agency while living in Berlin. Home is London and her roots are Jamaican - Sharmaine is proud to be part of the African diaspora and books make her feel part of the world.