Living Your Book: Life on the March

Maybe I’m presuming far too much, but in my experience, most writers tend not to be very physical people.  It seems like the doers of society are often too busy doing to take the time to write and the authors are often too busy authorizing to do!  Perhaps the best of us are those who find time for both.  🙂

This month we’ll be taking a look at something that it is difficult to get on without:  real life experience.  Want to find a way to really spice up your prose?  Here is a key question: Are you just satisfied with living inside your comfortable shell, only venturing out by proxy through your characters?  If so, I doubt your writing is as vivid and powerful as it otherwise could be.  You can unlock your potential, but it will be harder than you ever imagined…but also perhaps more rewarding!

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A view of Cold Mountain from Mt. Pleasant, in Amherst County, Virginia. Imagine that you have to make it to that bald spot in the upper right by dark. For most of us, it won’t be easy….

Traveling by foot.  It is something that fictional characters seem to do all the time. This is especially true if you are a reader or writer of fantasy or historical fiction.  You may of course be able to get away without much trudging along if you focus on science fiction or you story is set in the present day, but many authors don’t have that luxury.  Unfortunately, for many of us, the reality of having to hoof it from one place to another, far distant, isn’t something with which we are at all familiar!

 (And yes, these are all pictures I’ve taken while hiking!  Virginia is a great place to live.)

I’ve always loved the outdoors and that has always included hiking to some extent.  I really began to do it somewhat seriously in college, and I’ve recently turned it into a full-fledged pass time.  In July, I decided to begin my most recent attempt at weight loss.  Since we live in the mountains, I hit on the idea of hiking as my major form of exercise.*  When I started, it had been about nine months since I had tried any serious exertion and I was well over 260 pounds “fluffy.”

The Road winds ever on and on…and on…and on…and on….

I had a shock in store, of course! The sweat that poured from my brow could have filled a small swimming pool.  My feet ached, my legs burned, and the miles seemed to crawl by. I knew of course that hiking in the mountains is a very different prospect from “power walks” around a neighborhood, but the reality was brought home to me each day I came back with another set of callouses and blisters.

Probably the worst came when a friend and I attempted a 14 mile hike that included a three mile uphill climb.  I had purchased a new pair of boots not long before and I had attempted to break them in.  I obviously had not succeeded.  Even though I had armored up with moleskin, before we had reached the top of the first mountain my left heel shot through with pain with each step.  Unable to take off my boot for fear of not getting it back on, I suffered through to the end of the hike only to find my sock literally dripping with blood when I was done.  It was more than two weeks before I had healed to the point where I could comfortably wear shoes again.**

All of that has reminded me once more of the difference between our fantasies and reality.  There is so much to consider, if you have never tried a serious hike before, that I can’t do more than hazard a brief list of things I’ve learned afresh over the past few months and will be including in my stories:

  • The difference that training can make:  I can now roll off the miles at a decent pace whereas my first few attempts were painfully slow.  How might this make me depict the ranger differently from the priest?
  • Weight makes all the difference:  Anyone in reasonable shape can traverse terrain quickly for an afternoon excursion.  It is quite a different thing to carry everything you need to survive on your back.  How much do I expect my characters to lug along and still make 4 miles an hour through the mountains?
  • The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but it is rarely the fastest:  Trails and roads “meander” for a reason, most often.
  • The importance of footware:  A good pair of boots are worth their weight in gold.  What might the difference be between a wealthy knight and the starving peasant?
  • The reality of the lonely trail:  You can’t always depend on a rescue even today, especially for non-life threatening injuries.  How would different characters react to that practical solitude?
  • Pain and necessity:  There are times when you must keep putting one foot in front of the other, not matter how much it hurts.  What would go through someone’s mind in a moment like that?
  • The effects of environment:  Heat, cold, insects, etc. all take their toll–just think of Tolkien’s Caradhras and Midgewater.  How does this magnify or nullify other problems characters might have?
  • The living, breathing stillness of the forest:  Peaceful and ominous at the same time. How might I set an atmosphere that brings that out?
  • The majesty of the world:  The mountains, the seashore, the sky…they are all so wild, so huge.  How do characters relate to these ideas?  Who notices them?  who doesn’t?

I could (and probably will, at some point) write a post about each of the bulleted points above!  All of them and much more were made real to me by the simple process of walking from point a to point b.  I now have a new chance to make them real to my readers through my characters

If you’ve never tried it before, I strongly suggest that you consider finding an experienced hiker/backpacker to help you, that you set a goal that is just beyond what you think you can reach, and then hit the trail!  Your readers will benefit from it as much as you do

The view of Mt. Pleasant, taken from the bald spot mentioned in the above picture. If you open the picture you may just be able to make out the spot where the first picture was taken–a small rocky overlook at the very top of the mountain (not the obvious formation halfway down).

Next Week:  We’ll take a short break from this series with “The Inheritance of Hiram Percy Maxim:  The Practical Origins of a Story,” which will be published in the LHP eZine at the end of the month.  We’ll come back to “Living Your Book:  Understanding Terrain” the week after.

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 *I habitually abhor the idea of running in circles.  The same goes for straight lines, unless there is something useful or interesting at the end of it!

**You’ll be glad to hear I got a full refund on the boots….

Other Posts in the “Living Your Book” Series

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on October 12, 2012, in Brian Melton, Characters, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Speculative Fiction, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Good advice–for more than just writers, or for more than just the writer in us. In Apologetics class today we discussed the common arc in the rise of industrialism and secularism in the West. We concluded that urban and suburban Americans need to make a special, pro-active effort to stay connected to Nature if we want to keep effectively hearing its voice. “The heavens declare the glory of God” said David (Ps. 19:1). But if you spend your whole life in a man-made environment you will have a hard time hearing that voice. If you are never unplugged from the Internet (like some of my students) you will have a different matrix of default settings that will not be good for you spiritually. Backpacking is one of the best ways of counteracting those effects. It will not only help your writing–it will increase your mental health.

  2. Wish I lived closer… I would definitely want to go with you!

  1. Pingback: God’s Glory Writ Large…and How We Miss It. | Lantern Hollow Press

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