Claire Datnow Blog Posts

The Art and Craft of Eco Fiction

By Claire Datnow

Claire and Butterfy mural

Eco-fiction and climate fiction include environmental and nature themes, which can be written in a wide variety of styles and span all genres including mystery, romance, thriller, coming-of-age, dystopian, utopian, magical realism, and realist fiction. This sub-genre can be as diverse as our natural world. It is multicultural, global—and may include animals too. Environmental fiction explicitly explores humanity’s impact on the natural world.
How do you frame an environmental crisis as a satisfying mystery for young readers? An ecological mystery is a scientific investigation and a mystery combined into an exciting adventure story. In an eco-mystery the role of villain is played by an ecological problem that is harming a species. The characters are affected by the problem, and like good detectives they must carry out an investigation that will identify the causes of the problem and then help to solve it. The characters are the emotional engine of the stories. They include victims who are hurt. Villains who are responsible for the hurt. And heroes that bring promise of reprieve for the victims.
To solve the problem the characters must gather scientific data, theories, facts, policies, and possible solutions related to the issue. Environmental fiction depends on researching the scientific information crucial to solving the mystery. Research includes reading relevant books, scientific papers, interviews with wildlife biologists, specialists in fields related to the topic, and field trips. Although the time spent on research is extensive it is a rewarding an intriguing part of the process, modeled by the characters in the story.
It is critical to balance the nonfiction science elements with an entertaining plot. Writers must avoid hitting the pause button by dumping large blocks of information that halts the flow of the narrative. Do not hit the pause button with information dumps. Compelling environmental fiction weaves scientific, economic, environmental facts and issues beyond statistics, charts, and political ideologies into storytelling by entering the experience the characters’ feelings and the struggles they must overcome. Powerful storytelling techniques are the keys to touching readers' hearts, igniting their imagination, and inspiring them to build a bridge to tomorrow. This is an example excerpted from The Adventures of The Sizzling Six: Monarch Mysteries. Mrs. Mariposa describes what happened to the butterflies overwintering in Mexico, after a big snowstorm:

“Tomas only found out what happened to the butterflies after the snow melted enough to make it possible to take tourists up to the sanctuary. As he guided them up the steep path, Tomas got a very bad feeling. There were no butterflies to be seen along the way. When they were almost at the sanctuary, the wind shifted a strange smell hit them. It was sickly sweet, like rotten pumpkins mixed with stale food.”
“That’s disgusting,” Crystal McCall whispers to her sidekick, Wanda.
“Tomas wondered where the awful smell could be coming from,” Mrs. M says.” When he looked more closely, he couldn’t believe his eyes. What he thought were fallen leaves, turned out to be millions of monarchs. They were all dead their delicate wings covered in ice.”
A gasp runs through the classroom. “Millions!” someone exclaims.
. . . “Is there anything the scientists can do to help the monarchs? Is there anything we can do to help? “Jose swallows so hard I can see his Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. I like that he cares so much he wants to do something. . . .
I’m practically squirming in my seat and blurt out, “There is something we can do!”

Generally, bookstores and libraries do not provide a section labeled environmental fiction or climate fiction, often shelving these books under traditional genre labels, which creates a challenge for marketers. Marketing environmental fiction involves similar steps to marketing any book, including finding agents, publishers, building a web site, posting on social media, book launches, and school visits. It is also helpful to join groups that promote environmental fiction including, The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), Ashland Creek Press, Writers Rebel, The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), and the Climate Fiction Writers League.

This article was published in the February, 2023 edition of
XR Writers Rebel

To Be, or Not To Be A Writer?

To Be or Not To Be A Writer?
Claire Datnow author
This is an interview with me, myself, and I whether to be or not to be a writer.
What made you become a writer?
I have always devoured books as if they were the keys to a magical kingdom. Reading ignited my imagination, fueling my desire to become a writer. The stories I read opened doors and windows in my mind. No flashes of insight, no grand epiphanies, just a steady, mounting passion to create my own stories.
What is the work you’re most proud to have created?
My books are like my children. I cannot pick a favorite. However, my books that could be stand the test of time my are memoir, Behind The Walled Garden of Apartheid: Growing Up White in Segregated South Africa, and The Nine Inheritors: The Extraordinary Odyssey of an Ancient Scroll.  The most difficult books to write are my cli-fi adventures. The dire consequence of climate change must be portrayed without sugar coating yet inspire young readers with hope.
Claire Datnow teacher
If you had to pick three books that have influenced your work the most, which ones would you list? Why?
Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth series set in China. Buck’s stories paved the way for writing empathetic stories about diverse cultures and, incidentally, fueled my desire to travel across the globe.
Jean Craighead George’s environmental mystery series, including, The Case of The Missing Cut Throats, inspired my series The Adventures of The Sizzling Six.
Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr shine a light on the brutal consequences of war on individual young lives, paralleling the destructive force of climate change.
Kim Stanley Robinson Antarctica, which parallels, in my mind, my cli-fi trilogy, Red Flag Warning: A Climate Adventure (Book one), and The Gray Whale’s Lament (Book two) that I am currently working on.  
What are your hopes for the AWC throughout the next few years? I hope it will be possible for our member to get together in person, or virtually, for craft sessions, and possibly a book club that focus on critiquing a book from a writer’s P.O.V
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Writing is like the art of making fine wine or good cheese which takes time. To (mis)quote Orson Welles “We will publish no books before their time.”
What are you working on now? The second book in a climate change trilogy, The Gray Whale’s Lament.  

The Last Whaling Station

The Last Whaling Station Point San Pueblo California

A Visit to the Setting of the Story
Reality met the setting I imagined on my trip to the Last Whaling in the US, San Pueblo Point, East Bay California. This is an excerpt from The Gray Whale's Lament after my trip.
Chapter 8. The Last Whaling Station
They drove on the freeway through heavy traffic and then across the long, roller coaster-like San Rafael Bridge. Nearing their destination at Point Molate Naval Base, they passed an old air raid shelter with castle-like brown brick walls covered in vines.
Searching the internet Sarah exclaimed, “Mom, this is so interesting . . . did you know that Native Americans fished right here for centuries, and that in the late 1800s it was a Chinese shrimp camp?”
“I knew about the shrimp camp and of course there were native Americans living here long before us. Their ancestors still live around this place. If we dig in the earth we might find shards of their pottery, the shells of the mussels, and the bones fish they ate.”
“Ooh, that gives me goose bumps.” Sarah shivered.
At Point San Pablo, the road had been blocked by security guards, so they turned right at a fork, winding around a hill. Noticing that her mother was clutching the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles were white, Sarah asked, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
“This is where your Grandmother Rose took the picture of the whaling station,” she replied.
       “Stop, Mom! I want to take a picture at this spot,” Sarah said.
Bumping off the road, they parked on a grassy shoulder. Then the two hiked to the top of the hill.
“Is that where the whales were killed?” Sarah asked, pointing across the bay.
“Yes.” Her mother sighed. Standing shoulder to shoulder they listened to the wind rustling through the golden, dry grass at their feet. The wind picked up, flattening the grass, and howling across the waves.
Sarah shivered. “It sounds like the ghosts of long ago still haunt this place.”
Her mother squeezed her hand. “It’s okay to remember the past,” she said, dabbing away tears. “Even upsetting memories can motivate you to do something worthwhile.”
Sarah began snapping pictures. “Still, it’s peaceful here. It’s hard to believe this bay was home to the last active whaling station where whales were slaughtered in the US.”

Ramp for Dragging whales into the Whaling Station
Finally, they pulled into the parking lot, hidden around a bend at the end of the road, at Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor.
       With the Chummy at her heels and binoculars in hand, Sarah tumbled out of the car. Pulling out her mobile phone, she snapped photos of houseboats, and floating homes that lined the bay.

Houseboats San Pueblo Point, East Bay California
She couldn’t resist taking a picture of the funky, oversized sculpture of an alligator with jaws wide open.

Oversized Sculpture of an Alligator, San Pueblo Hatch Club
Even the historic old shacks and rusting machinery made interesting pictures. As they walked by, the harbor master waved and called out, “Don’t forget to visit the farm with goats and order something to eat at the restaurant.”
       They came to the pebbly beach where a sign that read: OK for launching kayaks, canoes, etc. Chummy trotted along the beach stopping to sniff at invisible scents. Her mother rubbed her forehead, “It’s changed since I was here years ago.”
“I can’t see the old whaling station,” Sarah said, looking through her binoculars.
“We need to drive to the North side of the point where we can see across the bay to the remains of the whaling station.”
They got back in the car and within minutes they arrived at the point. Chummy leapt out of the car and began to bark, “Be quiet!” Sarah command her dog to stop him from barking at the elephant seals rumbling contentedly while sunning themselves on the rocks. She could make see the blackened wooden posts, which had supported the pier and the gangplank up to the factory. Her mother had been right, there was nothing to tell of the horror that had happened here. No witness to how ruthlessly the whales had been slaughtered.

Chocking back curse words she hissed, “Nasty, stupid—.”
       Just then Chummy began yipping. She turned and saw her dog digging furiously at something half-buried in the sand.
       “Chummy, come here,” Sarah called. The dog raced toward her, then turned back to continue digging, sending sand flying.

       “What have you got there, boy?” Sarah strode over to Chummy. It appeared to be blue plastic bottle cap sticking out of the sand. Getting down on her knees, she rocked the bottle loose. She brushed off the sand she held it up to the light. It was an ordinary plastic water bottle with a roll of paper inside. There was also a plastic bag with something tiny curled inside. Peering more closely she could make out what appeared to be tiny black eye in a white face and a curled body. The image of the fetus in her dream flared in her mind. She dropped the bottle as if it were a scorpion readying to sting her.
    “Calm down. It’s just a bottle with a plastic bag and some junk inside it. Nothing to be afraid of.”
       “What is it?” Sarah asked, her breath catching in her throat.
       “I can’t tell for sure,” her mother said. “Maybe it’s a message or treasure from a castaway pirate stranded on a deserted tropical island,” her mother joked.
       “Right, and we should row over to save him right now,” Sarah said, brushing off the sand clinging to Chummy.

Natsilane's Lament

By Alysie Muckpa


We are ancient. We are weathered. We appeared 50 million years ago, long before the first humans. We live in the world’s oceans from the Arctic and Antarctic to the tropical seas around the equator. We are many times larger than any human. They call us mammals, like them. To them we are also monsters of the deep. A few of us have lived for 200 hundred years. Our bodies are scared with messages for humans to decipher. We conserve life on this planet by capturing carbon from the atmosphere. We are beacons of hope for the future.
But something has gone wrong. Dead whales have begun washing ashore. I, Natsilane, one of the dead, will speak on their behalf. We mourn the deaths of each member of our family struck by ships, tangled in fishing nets, suffocated by oil and chemical spills, chocked by plastic pollution, and starved because of climate change. Some humans enjoy whale watching. They take photos of whales, ignoring our scars, our thinning sides, the spine bones sticking out on our backs. When humans do pause to look at us—really look at us—it is with wonder or pity.
Humans are ignoring the wisdom of their ancestors. There are fewer of us now, but we will keep singing to them, begging them to listen. To see the warning signs. Do not be misled by our gigantic strength. We do not have the power to fight the damage humans have caused. The grief of the world touches us. The blazing sun, the wild storms, the frigid air, the roaring gales, the rising seas. We have felt the ice melting, seen the plankton and the krill dying, leaving us starving.
It is hard to talk about what is happening or what could happen next. Though it is frightening to see humans destroy themselves and the planet without mercy, it is heartening to know some humans are fighting to save whales, to save life in the oceans and on land.
We are have many obstacles to overcome, but will keep on striving. It’s great to be an ancient species, to be alive, to feel hope.