Photo credit: Josh Durias
Usually when I sit down to write a story, I have an idea about a character and/or a plot. Those two elements are key in getting me excited about writing. However, when I sat down to write what would become my debut novel, The Wolves of Winter
, more than anything else, I had the setting in mind.
I had some vague ideas about writing a survival novel, and about a family with a strong father-daughter relationship, but they were all just notions, barely beginning to crystallize. What I knew for sure was that the story was going to be set in a post-apocalyptic, snowy Yukon wilderness. I chose this setting for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted society to not only have crumbled around my characters, I wanted them to be totally and completely displaced. I wanted a location where they’d be surrounded by nothing but wilderness for miles and miles. What better place than the Yukon?
I also knew I wanted a snow-covered environment. This was partly because, frankly, I really enjoy the snow. I grew up in a place where, if it snowed hard enough, school was often cancelled. And what’s more fun than playing in the snow when normally you’d be sitting in class? I remember spending hours sledding, building snowmen and snow forts, and having snowball fights. When I got older, I’d still trek outside during winter, going for snowy hikes with my best friends. There’s something about snow that feels epic, and I wanted that in my story.
With my wilderness setting in place, I found that the key to writing about it was research, experience, and passion. First of all, I’d never actually been to the Blackstone River in the Yukon where the book is set, so I needed to know more about it. I spent a lot of time looking at maps, reading about the location, and finding the correct flora and fauna. And even now, I’m sure I took some literary license with my writing. I also wanted to get the details right about things like how to build an igloo or how to field dress a deer. I watched a lot of videos of deer being gutted (I don’t recommend doing this while you’re eating lunch… and yes, I did this while I was eating lunch). I learned that you can spend hours researching something that only takes up a paragraph, a sentence, or even a few words in your novel. I remember spending far too long researching Yukon birds because I wanted to find one that would be around in the winter, would have a unique and recognizable song, and have a distinct name. In the end, the bird is mentioned twice and very briefly. Research is an invaluable tool when writing about the outdoors, and if I learned one thing from writing my first novel, it’s to do more of it! You never know what strange details you might find and be able to use.
There’s something about snow that feels epic, and I wanted that in my story.
After research, probably the best thing that came to my aid when writing about the outdoors was the time I’d actually spent in the outdoors. As a young child, I grew up at a summer camp where my dad was the director. We’d roam the beaches, the forests, and the hills surrounding the camp, and in the evenings my parents would tuck me in and close the door to the tiny closet I slept in. Did I mention our place was small? When I got a bit older, the house we lived in for the longest period of my life was surrounded by woods, where we spent countless hours building forts and playing Robin Hood (in which my brother would force me to be Little John even though he was bigger and I was the clear choice for Robin Hood… but I hold no bitterness, I swear). We also grew up hunting and fishing with my dad. We’d fish for trout in the lake, salmon in the river, we’d hunt pheasant out in the country, and take trips to Idaho where we’d hunt for turkey in the hills and spend the days at my uncle’s small cabin on the lake. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a bear in the wild on one of our trips to Idaho. We were riding four wheelers up the mountain when my uncle stopped us because he said he smelled elk piss. We were looking at some prints when a baby black bear came crashing through the bushes, squealing and wailing for its mom. Needless to say, we got out of there pretty fast. Black bears usually aren’t aggressive, but you don’t want to get caught between a mama bear and her cub. To this day, I don’t know if my uncle actually smelled elk piss, or if he was just messing with us. All this to say, I think there is something to writing about the outdoors that is hard to fake. You can get all the details right through research, but you might not really be able to capture the feel
of the outdoors unless you’ve spent a significant amount of time outside. How can you give a true description of what elk piss smells like if you’ve never actually smelled it?
Finally, I don’t claim to be an expert survivalist, but I do have a passion for nature that has been nurtured from a very early age. I think one of the best pieces of advice when writing fiction isn’t “write what you know” but “use
what you know.” And, in turn, use what you’re excited about; that passion will translate into your writing. If you’re obsessed with medieval blacksmithing, why not include a few swords in your novel? It’s why I wrote about the outdoors: because the kid in me will always be excited about being outside, building forts and playing in the snow.
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is a 29-year-old writer and editor who grew up in Bellingham, Washington. He received his MFA from the University of California, Riverside, where he studied fiction and poetry. An avid outdoorsman, he currently lives in Kelowna, British Columbia, with his wife, two kids, and a Siberian husky. The Wolves of Winter
is his first novel.