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Putting the Environment in a Fantasy Novel

I’ve loved D.G. Driver’s works for two reasons, but the one I asked her to write about was how she wrote environmental concerns into her fiction. I wanted to know all sorts of things, like what her aim was, and how much research she needed to do. I’m very pleased (and honestly surprised!) with the information in her guest post.  So, we present: Putting the Environment in a Fantasy Novel by D.G. Driver

Putting the Environment in a Fantasy Novel


By D. G. Driver


My Juniper Sawfeather novels are about the teen daughter of environmental activists who discovers mythical creatures during her efforts to protect the natural world.

Right there in the description I’ve declared that these YA fantasy novels have an environmental theme. This is either going to make people go, “Ooh, that sounds like something that would be important to me,” or it makes their fingers swipe right on by to the next listing about gorgeous girls who magically turn into mermaids and seduce equally gorgeous guys. It might have been a crazy choice, writing a paranormal series that is so different from the norm and has a message strewn throughout it. I promise, at the start of the whole thing, this wasn’t my aim.

I just thought it was an interesting premise.

I didn’t set out to make Cry of the Sea a message book about oil spills and ocean pollution. That really is the backdrop to a bigger story. When the first gem of an idea for this book came about, I still lived in Southern California (I’m in Nashville now), and it was the 10-year anniversary of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. It was all over the news. My over-active imagination thought, “What would happen if mermaids were found on a beach during an oil spill dying because they were covered with oil?” Thus, Cry of the Sea was born.

I had to learn about oil spills: how they happen, what damage they cause, how the oil is cleaned off marine animals, what the laws are regarding oil tankers, and so much more. To effectively write a book that opens with an oil spill, I needed to have this information as accurate as possible, even if the event was fictional. Ultimately, though, the novel is not about the oil spill. It is about Juniper trying to save these creatures that have been hurt and are in danger.

In book two, Whisper of the Woods, the majority of the book takes place in the forest up in the branches of a 1,000+ year old Red Cedar tree that Juniper is protecting from the axe. I had to learn about Old Growth trees, forestry, timber companies on American Indian reservations, laws about logging, etc. But again, the protest against felling ancient trees is the backdrop. The real story is about Juniper who is trapped in this tree because it is possessed by an ancient tree spirit that will not let her go or allow anyone to save her.

When Cry of the Sea first came out, I downplayed the environmental part of the book. I actually thought that would turn away readers. I also didn’t write the first book with the intention of it becoming a trilogy, so I focused all of my publicity on the mermaid aspect of the story. Mermaid books were gaining popularity, and I thought I’d slip right into that group. The problem with this effort, however, is that Cry of the Sea has more of a science-fiction take on the mermaids – what they would be like if they were real and had evolved in our oceans. Despite my best efforts, the mermaid fandom (yes, there is one and it’s huge) prefer their mermaids to be like Ariel, beautiful women with long hair and tails, who talk and maybe sing. My mermaids are not like that at all. They are bald, silver, and communicate only through dolphin-like sounds and a clairvoyant connection to Juniper.

I then focused pretty heavily on the diversity aspect of the book. Juniper Sawfeather is half American Indian. This got the book involved in some great events and online groups, but the interest in that aspect of the book is limited. What seems to keep coming up is the environmental theme.

The reviews of both books almost always focus on the environmental issues presented. Even the review from SciFi and Scary: “What I got was a book that talked honestly (without being overbearing) about the dangers of oil spills and protecting the environment. I also got a main character who, while going through your typical teenage growing pains, was strong and willing to stand up for what she believed in.” Another review hoped the book would inspire young people to be activists for clean oceans. I got a couple of fan letters from young teens telling me that they now wanted to major in Environmental Studies when they go to college.

Cry of the Sea won an award from the 2015 Green Book Festival for environmental themed books, 2nd place in the green/environmental category of the 2016 Purple Dragonfly Children’s Book Awards, and Eco-Fiction is now featuring giant excerpts of it on their website. I think I’ve found where this book fits in the world of literature – finally.

And maybe it’s good that I didn’t know this at the start. I think if I’d set out to write books about ocean pollution and tree logging, they might have come out preachy or stilted. It’s okay to have an important issue or message in a book’s theme, but ultimately the book needs to be about engaging characters doing interesting things.

For example, I’ve finished book 3, Echo of the Cliffs, and it will be out next year. Before I started plotting it I had to find the particular cause Juniper’s family is protesting in this novel: construction run-off pollution and its effects on killer whales (and mermaids). I did my research on that subject. As with the first two books, the environmental cause is important to the plot but not at its center, but I had to work a little harder this time to make sure that happened. My desire to put everything I learned into the pages was high. I narrowed my research down to what fit the story and let the rest go. The book is instead about a quest that Juniper is on, which is set up at the end of book 2. Of the three books, it is definitely the most action-packed and exciting.

Now, the big question is how to get the teens to discover this series. It’s different from most books in its genre. I know that teens and millennials are concerned about the environment. They grew up while a major oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. They are living right now through the crisis of the pipeline in North Dakota. They know about Global Warming. And they care what happens. I follow a lot of groups that help with ocean pollution or reforestation. Kids get involved. In October, a teen student named Prya Verma wrote an amazing research paper on the environment that was shared on World Pulse*: “Today we are hearing such stories daily how youths are contributing towards environmental protection and sustainable development in many ways and bringing positive change in the world. We should acknowledge their efforts and encourage them.”

We are a passive society. It’s easy to hit “like” on a post that matters to us or sign a petition. To actually get up and take action, physically, is harder to do. Entertainment is important to teens, and it’s a way to reach them. Reading about a fictional character who bravely tackles important issues can be a start to building that same drive inside a real person. I’m hoping that when young people discover Cry of the Sea they will become fans of Juniper Sawfeather and be curious about both what adventure and what issue she will face next. Do I think kids will start fighting oil companies single-handedly or strapping themselves to trees? No. That’s a bit extreme. But if these books make fans a little more aware of their own garbage when visiting the beach or going camping, that wouldn’t be bad start. Who knows? Maybe they’ll start a Recycling Club, just like Juniper does, at their own school.


*Oct. 2016


d-g-driver for the environmentBio: D.G. Driver grew up in Southern California, twenty minutes from the beach. She is now land-locked near Nashville, Tennessee, but she has come to love the country and the friendly people who live there. She has three books published with Fire and Ice Young Adult Books: Cry of the Sea, Whisper of the Woods, and her romance novella Passing Notes. Her first adult romance story came out this year in the anthology Second Chance for Love from Satin Romance Books and a horror story of hers was just released in the free anthology Fantastic Creatures. In addition to writing, she is a mother of young adults, a teacher, and can often be found singing in a local community theater musical with her husband.


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