Cowboys Are My Weakness & Other Recommendations


Sandra Neily here: What if nature-based fiction or passages work better to bring us close to the richness and power of the physical world than any science course we might take? What if they deliver more magic, more empathy, more urgency, and more wisdom than a cross-section or diagram ever could?

This week I am repeating and updating a 2019 post after seeing the nature based fiction page on my author website is the site’s most visited page.

When I travel around on presentations, I share out these quotes and suggestions, including a favorite moment from my recent work. I’d love to hear about your choices for a strong nature moment.


“Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and the beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.” Jack London, The Call of the Wild

“The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the isles soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness.” Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” Willa Cather, My Ántonia

“When he says ‘Skins or blankets?’ it will take you a moment to realized that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. He carried it, he’ll say, soaking wet and heavier than a dead man, across the tundra for two—was it hours or days or weeks? … It’s December, and your skin is never really warm, so you will pull the bulk of it around you and pose for him, pose for his camera, without having to narrate this moose’s death.” Pam Houston, Cowboys Are My Weakness

“We were floating on the thin film that divides the fish world from the human world. I could feel hot air on my rear end, but every other part of me was cool. Hair on my arms drifted up and down like water plants seeking microscopic food. Rotating my head only slightly, I could breathe and then return to the wet, green world.

The water was so clear I could see every grain of sand and each cloud shape that, far above us, shadowed rocks and drifted on.

In slow motion, Moz turned over rocks, lifting tiny things into the current. Soon they were bumping off my mask and I could recognize them. When I smiled, escaping air bubbles bounced the stonefly larvae toward shore. Their shelled segments arched in the effort to find new rock homes for their outstretched waving legs.

caddis pupa

Something glittered and I held out a finger to snag it. Not much bigger than an inch, a future caddis fly had woven a hard pupa case around his larval self. This one must have been an artist. It had chosen tiny pebbles flecked with bright mica flakes and glued them together to make its cave. The creature inside waited to emerge as a winged insect that would feed fish—if it lived long enough. The stream’s current rotated the pupa case into my hand. Inside it, tiny wings vibrated.” Sandra Neily, Deadly Turn

More Suggestions (Reviews are in quotes. My personal notes are not.)

Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh. “ … characters whose lives are increasingly bound by the opposing interests that underpin the national debate, it depicts a community blessed and cursed by its natural resources.” And “… when an author can tell a beautiful and compelling story about fracking, well, you know you are in the presence of something special.”

Breaking Point, C.J. Box. Two EPA employees are murdered. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett thinks it might be Butch Roberson whose dreams of retirement income are shredded when the EPA declares his lands a wetland. NY Times best-selling author Box has won every major mystery award going.

Winter Study, Nevada Barr. “Soon after Anna Pigeon joins the famed wolf study team of Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior, the wolf packs begin to behave in peculiar ways.” All of her mysteries are set in vivid and various National Parks. All rip nature onto the page.

Skinny Dip, Carl Hiaasen. “…is about “a young, handsome marine biologist whose expertise is marginal and whose insatiable greed drives him to collude with a crooked farm tycoon who owns large vegetable fields adjacent to the Everglades, which he relentlessly pollutes with fertilizer run-off.” Hiaasen’s best-selling satires pit Florida’s outdoors against relentless stupidity.

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, Christopher Scotton. “The events of this fateful summer will affect the entire town of Medgar, Kentucky, beset by a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills and back filling the hollows.” NY Times raves: “a page turner.”

A Night Too Dark and also her Killing Grounds, Dana Stabenow. Alaska’s many natural resources provide conflict in most all her novels from mineral wars to fishing turf battles, to big oil up against native tribes. “Her over 17 novels about the Aleut PI Kate Shugak are an outstanding series. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear, owns a wolf/husky dog named Mutt and tries to survive the worst Alaskan wilds throw at her.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey. In it, Hayduke says “No one knows precisely how sentient is a pinyon pine, for example, or to what degree such woody organisms can feel pain or fear, and in any case the road builders had more important things to worry about, but this much is clearly established as scientific face: a living tree, once uprooted, takes many days to wholly die.” In my novel, Deadly Trespass Patton says it’s, a “classic hymn to lawbreaking on behalf of the natural world.”

And more: The Overstory, Richard Powers * Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens  * Bearskin: A Novel, James A McLaughlin * Barkskins, Annie Prouix  *  Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver   *  The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, Sarah Orne Jewett  *  Watership Down,  Richard Adams  *  The Beans of Egypt Maine, Carolyn Chute  *  The Weight of Winter, Cathie Pelletier  * Massacre Pond, Paul Doiron * The Great Alone, Kristin Hannah

Reading in nature works, too. Leslie, moored in a small cove on a windjammer cruise.

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass, A Mystery in Maine,” was a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards, a recipient of a Mystery Writers of America national award and a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest.. Her second Mystery in Maine novel, “Deadly Turn” is now in Sherman’s Books and on Amazon in Kindle and paperback. She lives in the Maine woods and says she’d rather be “fly fishing, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there.” Find more info on her website




























About Sandra Neily

Sandy’s novel “Deadly Trespass” received a Mystery Writers of America award, was named a national finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association “Rising Star” contest, a finalist in the Mslexia international novel competition, a runner- up in Maine’s Joy of the Pen competition, and recently, an international SPR fiction finalist. Sandy lives in the woods of Maine and says she’d rather be “fly fishing cold streams, skiing remote trails, paddling near loons, or just generally out there—unless I’m sharing vanishing worlds with my readers. "
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6 Responses to Cowboys Are My Weakness & Other Recommendations

  1. K.A. Perry says:

    Your piece is a wonderful discussion of writers who weave in nature. I am an environmental attorney and my environmental thriller, The Green Beach File, is for all those who love nature. The main character sees nature in every scene and it is nature that drives the plot. It touches on the respite or solace many of us get from time spent outdoors, as well as the concept that some parts of the earth are so beautiful that many be they should be accessible to everyone.

  2. Andy Sagan says:

    These suggestions are really timely, as I’m new to Maine and found this blog while searching for a mystery series new to me; thank you!

    I can’t come up with quotes on the spur, I don’t take notes while reading, probably should, and my memory stinks, but the one that has stayed with me for over forty years comes from John Fowles, maybe The Magus, not sure, anyway… the character was on a boat in some exotic place, while I was reading on a boat in Japan, it was sunset for us both, and Fowles described the sky’s palette like the colors you see inside a wet seashell. It was “a moment” for me, and it stuck. (Now I’m reminded of it nearly every day here in Maine!)

    Reading mysteries for decades, long ago I realized that I am as compelled by an author’s “niche” as the mystery itself. For me, you can sub “nature based fiction” with local color (James Lee Burke) or psychological (Elizabeth George) or Native American mysticism (William Kent Krueger) or historical fiction (Phillip Kerr) or simply “beautifully written” (Elizabeth George, again) – there just has to be something gripping beyond the story line for me. I recently binge-read the Longmire series, certainly not nature-based but with plenty of evocative nature references along with native American mysticism, both amping-up my appreciation! After finishing the first book in a local Maine series last week, my wife asked whether I’d keep going, and I answered, “Well, the writing is decent, and I’m curious to see how a couple characters develop over time, but what I really liked was all this stuff about Maine wilderness and wildlife!”

    I can tell from the examples you provided that “nature based fiction” describes a richly focused writing style I will enjoy, and look forward to getting into it, so thanks again!

    • Sandy Neily says:

      That was great sharing, Andy. On so many levels. I go back and re-read Longmire now and then as the nature slipped in enhances the plot in such powerful or nuanced ways. Even if someone had to be left bleeding on the ground, we get to see the ground in novel and rich ways. Thanks!

  3. John Clark says:

    I’d add Eliot Pattison for his descriptions of Tibet, Tony Hillerman for his of New Mexico and Arizona, and Gerry Boyle for the way he lets readers sense the ‘other Maine.’

  4. sandra Neily says:

    HI John, So glad you added Eliot P. Love his mystical yet rich storytelling and it always makes me want to go to Tibet, even when of course….that’s just mystical all by itself.

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