Peter Dunn’s Storytelling Technique for Nature Writing

Peter Dunne’s book, The Wind Masters, follows in the nature writing tradition of Ernest Thompson Seton’s classic animal tales. In The Wind Masters, Dunne brings the life stories of the North American birds of prey to light through fictional snapshots of days in their lives. The stories are more than facts, they are narratives with elements of plot and characterization. The birds think like humans–dream, plan, hope, and romance their mates. In the illuminating introduction to the book, Dunne says, “These are the constructs of a writer’s mind. Though no one can say with certainty that birds of prey do not experience or express life as I have presented it…”

In the introduction, Dunne tells why he chose to fictionalize the life stories of the birds rather than give the straight facts.

The reason I have chosen the form of fiction to impart an understanding of an appreciation for birds of prey is simple: for effect, or, more precisely, for the effectiveness of this writing technique as an instructional tool. Hard information, I have found, is more easily assimilated when it is presented obliquely. This is what makes parables and nursery rhymes and folklore so effective. This, and the pleasure of the telling, is why storytellers recite stories.

Dunne also explains his technique for creating the stories. First he researched the lives of the birds in the ornithological literature. He began with Life History of North American Birds of Prey by Arthur Cleveland Bent. He read the two volumes in four days, highlighting and taking notes as he read. To this base, he added research from many other sources. The ideas for the narrative focus of the stories came for the most part from Dunne’s own observations of the birds in the field.

Dunne has the advantage of being the director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and a professional ornithologist. Most of us are not in such a position, but we can still use Dunne’s technique for our nature writing.

First, select a bird or animal that you can observe regularly. For example, white-crown sparrows frequent my back yard in winter. I can observe them everyday, so they would be a good starting point for my practice with this technique.

Second, begin to take detailed notes on your observations of your subject.

Third, read everything you can find on your bird or animal–taking notes and making comments in your notebook.

Fourth. watch for one specific incident or occurrence in your observations that might make a good focus for your story. For example, the white-crowns exhibit a very definite “pecking order” in which the dominant male chases other males away from his feeding area.

Fifth, imagine the emotions a person might feel if she or he were in the same situation as the bird or animal. The dominant white-crown might feel harried and frustrated. He might feel he gets no respect from the other birds.

Write a fictional narrative centered on the specific incident you observed. Use the human emotions you imagined and work facts from the research you did into the narrative.

Dunne’s stories do not tell the whole life of the bird. They are photographs of one moment in time of a bird’s life. That’s the way good short stories are–brief moments of one day captured in two or three snapshots. Avoid the temptation to try to tell a condensed version of the entire life history of the bird, egg to last flight. That’s not a short story.

Find a copy of Peter Dunne’s wonderful book, The Wind Masters, study his stories and technique, and try your hand at naturewriting by storytelling.