We’ve been hiking. Well, maybe more like walking. Compared to the demanding wilderness trails of the HighPeaks region of the Adirondack Mountains, the trails across the KittatinnyMountains in northwestern New Jersey are an easy amble.
But still, they’re close to NYC and it’s something. My little nuclear family includes a five-year-old and two adults who are a bit out of shape. We’re working up to some climbs in elevation, but in stages. We did, though, invest in moisture wicking socks and good hiking boots.
What I should have spent money on immediately, though, were some good trail maps. The sun-faded diagrams obscured by cloudy plexiglass that you find in trailhead parking lots just don’t cut it. We discovered this on our first couple of ambles. In the woods it’s easy to get turned around.
Now, I’m good with a compass and maps. Hey, I was an Eagle Scout back in the day when you earned merit badges in canoeing and camping. Orienteering is fun. And so I sent away for proper trail maps.
When they arrived I spread them across the floor of our loft, edges overlapping, a mosaic of the woodland’s secret passages. I could see where we’d turned wrong. I was filled with excitement and confidence. I had a kind of godlike, stratospheric view of a world that to us ambulatory mortals is often twists, turns and confusion. I became a master of the forest, not a victim of the trees.
Except, sometimes you want to see the trees. Last Sunday I showed my son how to identify fragrant sassafras. He plucked a leaf and brought it, sealed in a baggie and pressed in a book, to his kindergarten class for show and tell. He can’t read a trail map but he now knows that sassafras has leaves shaped like mittens, and it can make tea and root beer.
So, day-to-day what mostly do you observe in your life…the map or the trail, the forest or the trees?
Probably it depends on the day. That’s as it should be. And so it should be for the characters whose paths we hike in your fiction. Sometimes they have godlike perspective and sometimes they focus on sassafras leaves. Both are part of the journey.
Here are a few ways to make sure your readers fully experience the trek:
- In your current scene, what’s a tiny detail of the setting that has big meaning for your POV character? Pause to examine it.
- Pick a random spot in the story… what’s your protagonist’s inner condition? Experience it like a place. Get it down in words.
- At the story’s end, review the journey. Work backwards to give your main character at the story’s beginning a mental map of the road ahead…a map that’s misleading and incomplete.
- Along the journey, at what point does the map run out? Pinpoint the moment of being well and truly lost.
- There is a compass for every journey. What is the inner compass that your protagonist needs to reach her destination? Make it impossible for her to find…and yet right in her pocket.
The journey is more than the map and more than the trail. It’s both. That could be said of the writing process, too, but more important are your characters. How do they experience their experience? Do they see a map or are they focused on the trail?