Environment Matters

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Environment matters.

My office has big windows that look out onto the vegetable garden. That’s pretty nice, but it’s also distracting, especially when the sunflowers are giving up their seeds to a host of acrobatic birds, I can see the cherries ripening before my eyes, the squirrels are stealing my raspberries, or the hummingbirds are humming.

Then the harvest comes and the garden winds down, and the tomato cages are put away and the garden beds are put to rest for the winter, except for the garlic and Al’s salad bed, which continue, but aren’t all that interesting.

The cloud cover arrives in the Pacific Northwest and the rains make everything dimmer and gloomier, sometimes foggy. This is the time to write. No distractions out the window, except for the droning rain, and I welcome a dreary season in which to write darkish things.

I have a friend who lived for a time in the Pacific Northwest and couldn’t stand it. She now lives in Arizona, where the sun cheers her. I can’t stand to be that cheery. I like my dark and dreary, my cold and foggy, my sweatshirts, slippers, shawls, fireplaces, big sweaters, and wool hats.

Do I write happy things in the summer and dark things in the winter? No, I write darkish things all the time, but the evidence of my environment affects the environment in the stories and books. Environment is as important as character, and if you write: “They slammed out the cabin door and squared off in the snow,” you have more than conflict, you have environmental tension as well. You have a complete mental image in your head (as told to me by the amazing Theodore Sturgeon) in twelve words.

Environment matters. Home environment matters. Work environment matters. The environment that we put our characters in says everything about who they are, just like where we live speaks volumes about each of us.  We must make the setting where our characters dwell as real to the reader as the environment in which we write is to us. Otherwise, they have no reference point, and you miss one of the best opportunities to reveal character through the environment in which they choose to dwell.

What does your home/work environment say about you?

When we write in the bad guy point of view, the world is dark and gritty, wind howls, cats scream, sleet sheets sideways, and the smell of diesel hangs in the air.

When we write in the good guy point of view, though it may be the same exact location, there is breeze instead of wind, cats rub up against a leg, a light rain falls, and expectation of good things to come hangs in the air.

Environment matters.

I live in a delicious melding of the two worlds, with that ever-present sense of anticipation along with the droning rain.

My environment matters.