The Art and Craft of Climate Fiction
by Claire Datnow
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 the climate crisis as a satisfying mystery for readers without sugar coating the dire truth? 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—an inspire readers to take action.
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. 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 my novel 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 monarch 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 toward 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/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 Dragonfly.eco, The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE), Ashland Creek Press, Writers Rebel, and the Climate Fiction Writers League.
Claire Datnow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, which ignited my love for the natural world and for diverse cultures. Her published books for middle schoolers include: The Adventures of the Sizzling Six, Eco mystery series, including Monarch Mysteries published by Star Bright Books, long listed by Green Earth Books. She has just completed The Gray Whale’s Lament, the second book in a climate change trilogy, and the follow up to Red Flag Warning: An Eco Adventure, which received an Green Earth Honor Book Award.
In this extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Michelle Cook shares an extract from Tipping Point about carbon capture technology:
In the evening, the crowd at the Cuckoo is ebullient. I’m a little late, but Jack’s not there. Josie nods at me from behind the bar and slides a neat gin on a coaster in front of me without comment. The coaster is a piece of folded notepaper. His writing is small and spiky.
We can’t talk here.
Drink the gin—casually. Don’t down it. Then take a scenic route to the river bridge. Don’t get followed.
My insides cramp. What the hell is this about? Does he know Toby followed me? I hurry my gin, trying not to look like I’m hurrying my gin. With no idea why, I glance around for people who might be watching me. Glass drained, I clamber off the bar stool and wave goodbye to Josie, who shoots me a concerned frown, but says nothing as she pulls a pint.
Night has fallen, and my pulse flutters as I reach the river path. Jack is sitting on the bench dedicated to Lila Etheridge, who died the day I was born. His sweat-slicked face fixes on the dark water, and he doesn’t seem to hear me approach until I say his name.
“Essie, Jesus, you scared me.” He presses a hand to his chest and glances around him.
“Yeah. I have that effect.” I plop onto the bench beside him. He hesitates.
“How have you been?” The tightness in his voice makes me feel bad.
“Good,” I say. “Okay.”
“Did anyone follow you here?”
“Thanks for coming. I realise you had no reason to.”
“What’s this cloak and dagger stuff about?”
He takes in a long, slow breath. “In a minute, I’m going to take an envelope out of my pocket and pass it to you. Put it into your bag quickly—I’ll explain afterwards.”
“What the hell?”
His agitation radiates across the warm gap between us. “Please just trust me. I will explain. Just need to make sure you get this first, in case anything happens.”
“What... what’s going to happen?”
“Please, Essie.” His raised voice echoes under the bridge. He ducks his head down. Even in the moonlight, he looks like he hasn’t slept in days. His clothes are crumpled, his prairie dog eyes dark in shadow.
“Please,” he says quietly. “You don’t owe me anything. But... this is really... I need you to help me do something. Will you help?”
It’s a hard decision to make with nothing to go on. When I nod, a small, lumpy, brown envelope appears. I pluck it from his fingers and stuff it in my little shoulder bag.
“Thank you.” He breathes deeply in the swampy air, giving me time to think. “This isn’t drugs is it, Jack? You’re not stealing drugs?”
He laughs. “No. It’s not drugs. It’s probably worse.”
I raise my eyes to the sky. Silver tipped clouds scuttle away from us as I wait.
“Essie. Your protest group. Can you trust them?”
“You have a leader, right?”
He grabs my arm. “I don’t want the name, Essie. Don’t tell me the name, for God’s sake. Just... can you trust them?”
“You’re confusing me, now.” I look at his hand, still gripping my wrist. “Not to mention hurting me.”
He releases me. “Sorry.”
A group of lads is crossing the bridge. One of them looks down at us and whistles salaciously as Jack turns his face away. The gang explode into laughter, but pay us no more attention as they move on. I turn aside, to his shadowed face. “What’s in the envelope, Jack?” A deep sigh. “It’s the project I’ve been working on.”
“The Biiig chemistry?”
Instead of laughing, he shakes his head. “Sorry, I don’t have time to explain, but I need you to take it to your protest group. You guys need to find someone to help you process it.”
“It’s a 3D printer file for a piece of kit we’ve designed.”
“Carbon capture. Bioenergy carbon capture.”
Slowly, as if to an idiot, he says, “You take biological material, from... waste and stuff, and extract the energy. And capture the carbon. The basic idea is one in every home and we reverse the warming and save the world. Well, it’s more complicated than that, but...”
“It doesn’t matter right now. We just—”
“Anyway, that’s not new, is it?”
“Not the thing itself, no.” He shrugs. “But its power... There’s never been a model that could absorb carbon dioxide so quickly, at such concentrations.” He glances sideways at me, a proud smirk on his lips. “And that’s not all. I’ve found a way to harness the energy that comes out of it. With the old models, you just had to bury the carbon, and lost it. But I reckon I can use it. Got to test that bit, but if I nail it, it’s free electricity for everyone. Carbon neutral. In your own home.”
Crikey. “No more power cuts?”
“No more power cuts,” he nods. “And no more bills.”
I gape at Jack. “Shit... the power companies won’t like that.”
“You think? Hence the cloak and dagger.” As my heart hammers, about twenty thoughts occur to me. If he can make a scrubber that powerful, have we cracked it, then? And this being the case, why is it now in my bag? And am I safe?
“Why are you giving this to me?” He shoves his hands deep into his pockets as another gang of teenagers crosses the bridge into town.
“The project was government funded. The units would be cheap to make and free for everyone. But then, in the final phase, they cancelled it. No explanation given. Bastards.”
“So how did this even come to exist?” I pat my bag. He glances over, frowning. “We received considerable investment from a private source. The project moved from the university to ConservUnity last year, and my job moved with it. I was a lecturer at the uni, now I’m a CU research chemist. Okay. But then it turns out the units aren’t going to be free. Or even cheap.”
My brow creases. “Rich bastards get richer off other people’s misery? So, what’s new?”
“Nothing, really.” he says. “Just...” He flaps a hand at the sky, meaning the state of things, I guess. “We’re still doing this? Now?”
“Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“Langford, my boss, didn’t realise I was researching the power generation module at first. When he found out, he went bat shit. Told me to stop all activities related to that part of the project.”
“Scared. In case he got shut down. Like you said, the power companies wouldn’t like it. The government is pretty much owned by the power companies. And green tech firms like ours rely on the government for licences.”
“You sure about this?”
“Oh yeah,” he says with a slow nod. “Obviously, I carried on the research, anyway. I don’t trust Langford as far as I can spit. He’s probably cut a deal with the energy companies, or something.”
“You carried on? Sounds risky. You could lose your job. Get in trouble.” He twists towards me on the bench. “Essie, if we can make clean energy for free... think about it. For free.” His eyes are fierce, boring into me. “It would change the world as we know it. Famine, pollution, climate change... all gone. Almost overnight. That’s what they’re throwing away. Without asking. On behalf of us all.” No wonder he’s in such a state.
“So, the plan is...?”
“Take the file to your people. Find someone who knows how to do this and produce it.”
“Why do you need us?” A panic lights inside me. My hands clench, sweaty in my lap. How can I tell him Change Here has splintered?
“You can do it yourself, can’t you?” He picks at the peeling paint of the bench.
“It can’t be me. I can’t risk it, not yet. It’s my job. And my life. Once the tech’s out there, Langford can’t stop it. Whatever he’s planning, he’ll be out of the equation. Then I can come out in the open and help with the testing.”
“I don’t know anyone who could do that.”
“Your gang leader must. Just say you’ll try. Please, Essie. This could be the end of us if you don’t.” At first I imagine he means me and him, but he means everyone, I’m sure. What am I supposed to do? The state Gabe’s in...
“I’ll try.” There’s a lump in my throat. I need Maya. She’s due back from Edinburgh tomorrow. Lawrence has agreed to start his training for the new job next week so she’s coming back without him. Her text was jubilant, and a bit of my heart withered away when I read it.
“Thanks, Essie. I owe you everything. We all do.” He stands. For a moment, it seems like he wants to say something else, but then he just gives a tight smile. Before I can mutter goodbye, he moves past me and slopes off down the path.
Learn more about carbon capture.