Photo of a waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, with mossy trees and evergreens in the background.

Here’s the worst possible way to describe all this: “Mossy trees, evergreens, and some shrubs.”

Oh man. My boyfriend and I went hiking this weekend in one Oregon’s beautiful state parks. It was a lot of fun!

But old forests are complicated, beautiful things. There were a few signs that tried to tell us the difference between Douglas-firs and Western Hemlocks (which is not an easy task for a beginning botanist), so we made a few guesses as we walked. But I had no idea what plants grew in the Pacific Northwest. So I mentioned how I wanted a guide to the local plants… and then I forgot about it after 4 more miles of walking.

But Silver Falls has a gift store! And that’s how I came to find my copy of the Revised Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, & Alaska, by Pojar and MacKinnon. (Oh look, I could have gotten it cheaper on Amazon. I hope the park puts my money to good use.)

Anyway, I love this thing. And–more importantly–I am amazed that I have ever written a novel without a field guide.

Field guides are awesome. Even if you’re building a unique world, all you have to do is find a field guide for a similar climate and go from there. It tells you the types of plants that grow in different areas, different soils, and situations. Need some coastal plants? Well, here they are. You aren’t sure what kind of things grow in old-growth forests? Now you have pictures!

(Belated edit: I should probably clarify. I’m mostly saying that knowing the basic types of flowers that would realistically be in those fictional climates is good. I certainly don’t think most fiction would benefit from detailed descriptions of large-flowered cryptanthas and their preferred soil.)

And now I’m amazed that I never used these before. They’re easy. Super-stupid easy. They are one-stop shops for making an accurate, interesting, beautiful ecology.

I was really, really lazy about researching plants for my last few stories. They all took place within the boundaries of industrialized cities, so I only spot-checked individual plants when they were relevant to the story. I found a few plants for people’s gardens, I identified some grains growing in a couple of fields, and I totally ignored everything else.

But details enrich a story. And handwaving away flowers isn’t nearly as awesome as actually making lists of plants and animals that could show up in each area and then scattering in little details.

So now I’m embarrassed that I’ve never done this before. My last few stories have been either vaguely or overtly European, so I just bought a couple of dirt-cheap guides to the flowers and trees of Britain and western Europe.

Because, really? This is extraordinarily easy research to do with the right books. Why did I never think of this before?