Take a Hike

The action in my novel takes place in two quite different settings. One is pre-industrial agrarian and the other is managed wilderness, and these two distinct areas are separated by a mountain range that runs down the country like a spine. That had been the idea from early on, from when I read Guns, Germs, and Steel and 1491 as source material. So while the setting may have been planned, the elements within the setting had another source to them:
The need to get the hell out of my house and go for a hike.
Butt-in-chair-time is the basis for good writing. For bad writing as well. Okay, all writing starts by someone placing themselves before a keyboard or a microphone or placing pen in hand. Eventually, though, the body can only take so much. Fingers get tired, butt goes numb, the eyes start to water and the head to ache. And that’s when the writing is going well! If the plot is struggling or I have no idea how my heroine is going to get out of the latest mess I’ve thrown her into, then I need to change my environment.
I’ve long enjoyed hiking. When I was in High School I went on several backpacking trips to Colorado and Montana. The seclusion, the physical effort, and the natural beauty of those moutain trips lodged inside of me, waiting for my adult self to get back to nature. There was a lot of time between then and now spent in urban, suburban, and even exurban landscapes, but (despite a knee that one doctor told me reminded him of “crab meat”) I eventually made it back out to many of the State Parks in my area. I’ve hiked the Ice Age State Trail on many segments, Devil’s Lake and Parfrey’s Glen are among my favorite hikes, and others close by.
John Muir once wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” For me, going on a hike when the story struggled was the clearest way into the Universe that I had created. Losing my sense of self as I hike the forest and bluffs provides me with an opportunity to engage with my story in a new way. Every time that I’d been stuck and then gone on a hike, I’d found my way back into the story and could again move it forward. I have a smartphone and I’d stop, take it out, and leave a voice note for myself or call my home phone and leave a voicemail with what I thought might be the next step. Most often I used that, although sometimes there would be three or four voice notes as I revised, expanded, or altered those ideas.
Creating fiction is a mental act (heh, yeah, I went there). The brain is the most engaged and the fingers simply provide the means by which those thoughts get rendered into something external to the self and my own imaginings. But I’ve found that physical activity is imperative if I’m to be successful at my writing. I’ve focused in this post on how hiking provides a direct benefit to my writing, but physical activity is good in and of itself. If I’m in decent enough shape, it will allow me to ignore my tired fingers and my numbing butt. I can slog through that many more words before the eyes get too tired or the headache too distracting. When I don’t need the space to resolve plotting or other issues, then I’ll take up another activity, like a long bike ride or a walk through the neighborhood. Neither of those work as well as hiking the forest for solving problems, but the activity is good for its own sake.
All photos copyright David O. Engelstad
If you write and you find that pacing the halls or staring at the monitor or that damn blank page isn’t getting it done, then might I suggest you find some physical activity that you can do, that calls for the body to move but the brain to be needed only in case of emergency, and let the activity clear the way into the Universe of your own creation.

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