Dec 13 2011

Map of Discovery

Melissa Crytzer Fry

There’s nothing quite like a new discovery. A new favorite author. Music that stirs emotional notes within that you didn’t know existed. A novel that holds you spellbound from page one to 300. A neon orange flower dancing on a breeze along a steep hillside, its colors otherworldly. A bird you didn’t know existed but were lucky enough to glimpse.

During a walk up the hill that leads to our well, I stumbled upon this ladder-back woodpecker. Though not fully visible, the wings mimc brilliant zebra stripes! Click to enlarge to see better details of this fine bird.

Maybe that sense of discovery is why I enjoy hiking among southeastern Arizona’s cactus-studded hills: there’s always something new to see – whether it’s an ornately painted rock, acid washed from intense metamorphic heat; a new plant species; a never-before-seen insect; or a unique cloud in the sky.

The Arizona skies have been filled with beautiful cloud formations the past few days. These clouds remind me of feather-duster parroting the outline of the palo verde tree in the foreground. Click to enlarge.

Since 2010, I have been lucky to explore a number of washes, mountains and streams without ever consulting a map. I confess that it is not because I possess a Magellan-like sense of direction. Quite the contrary.

I have a trusted hiking partner who 1) has lived in the area for most of her life and knows one creosote bush from the next and 2) has done her research before we step on to the trail. She has made it easy for me.

Aravaipa Canyon is my favorite nearby hiking destination. Click to enlarge.

Even though my hiking buddy pre-plans our routes after careful study of local maps, we inevitably veer off, in search of something new. We hike down a new pathway, up a cliff, above an overlook, near an abandoned cave … And we wonder. And we take photos. And we enjoy the act of discovery.

What happens when you veer off the beaten path?

The other-worldly orange of the Desert Mariposa during a wonderful Arizona hike. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: Maps aren’t just for hikers like me who prefer not to be stranded in the unforgiving Sonoran Desert among its legions of scorpions, Gila Monsters (poisonous lizards) and rattlesnakes.

They’re also for writers! I’m talking about literally using maps – the same kind my hiking partner consults as she’s analyzing elevations, nearby natural landmarks, washes and knolls – to help you tell your story. They are a gift to writers, offering opportunities for incredible fiction exploration and discovery.

While we don’t use maps to hike, I have started to set my Nike hiking app so I can see how far we’ve gone.

Have you ever considered consulting a geologic map so you can better understand your setting – learning about the land’s history, mineral deposits and fault lines? Has it always been an area under pressure, or is it a tranquil place? How do those factors tie to the mood of your novel, the occupations of the local residents?

Or what about consulting a topographical map that spells out the ridges and hills, their heights and elevations (in Google maps, simply select the “terrain” dropdown)?

As I was researching my current WIP, I knew that I wanted to place a fictional boys’ home about two counties away from where I grew up. So I:

  • Googled Pennsylvania county maps and came up with this wonderful visual of PA counties. I chose Forest County (maybe my tree-hugging personality influenced this decision?).
  • I still needed a fictional name for this new town. So I Googled Cities in Forest County and came up with this list of fabulous, actual city names. They provided a great jumping-off point for a final name that I modified.
  • I also knew I wanted a place, preferably, that was heavily wooded and remote, so I perused the list of city names that had a good “sound” to them. Then I completed Google map searches of each town (and selected the “satellite” options so I could see if trees – or fields or concrete – were in abundance).  You can even use Google Earth to view curbside photos of buildings, homes and parks without stepping away from your computer (I know… kind of creepy. If you look, YOUR house is probably photographed, too).

But boy did the ideas start popping when I peered at these maps. Town names, road names, knoll names, nearby boroughs, bodies of water … They helped me piece together a name for the boys’ home in no time – and plot points began to materialize before me. The local water sources evoked a scene or two I hadn’t previously contemplated. Even the Germanic-sounding names of surrounding roads helped me concoct some ideas about the disciplinary functions at this school.

A little map quest turned into so much more for me! You should try it – even if you think you know the area you’re writing. All you really need to know is the state and county you want your story to take place in (or a fictional town like it), and the Internet. The discoveries will be worth the research effort.


34 Responses to “Map of Discovery”

  • avatar Julie Geistfeld Says:

    What a beautiful post!
    And yes, I usually google the moment I begin to place a story. There’s a setting that feels right, but all the details about weather, seasons, hills and valleys is all so important. I need to know how it ‘feels’ there or my characters can’t interact with the place. That research is as important for me as it is for them.
    Great post!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    What a great point – that to write authentic characters, we really need to understand how they fit into the setting, interact with it, and feel about it emotionally. So important!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    This is so fabulous for so many reasons! Wonderful to get a glimpse at the hikes you have described and how you plan and map them; wonderful to get a glimpse of how you plan and do research for your WIP; and finally, you gave me some great research ideas, too! You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I absolutely love maps and have had to create them for both my WIPs because, like yours, they have many references to natural settings. I love geologic maps and also marine maps…so interesting to look at and so much to learn!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    So happy I’ve given you some research ideas, Julia. Not surprised of your love of maps either, and am so interested in the maps you CREATED for your WIP. How supremely cool! I would be a fish out of water looking at a marine map (pun intended) ;-).

    [Reply]

  • avatar Shary Says:

    I always use road maps when plotting and I love your idea to use the satellite and topographical maps for story development. What a great way to find side trips and subplots.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I loved your phrase “side trips and subplots” so much, I had to use it in my tweet.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    yes, Yes, YES — what a FANTASTIC post!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh, Laurie. Your enthusiasm is contagious. Thank you so much for stopping by.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Sue Mitchell Says:

    I am a map addict and have quite a large collection. I can sit around and read a map the way others would read a book. What a great idea to pull that fascination and all the info topo maps provide into creative writing. Absolutely love it!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You know, this all came about purely by accident … It all started with “which county?” I never really stopped to think about how a map does, indeed, tell a story in the same way a book does. But the ideas just kept coming at me as I glanced at those maps, and I soon had such a vivid picture of so many scenes in my mind that it was just truly invigorating. LOVE those moments. BTW – thank you SO much for your support of my hiatus; I hadn’t yet gotten back to you!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Lorne Daniel Says:

    Maps do generate ideas and connections for writers, Melissa. They are also sometimes a disconnect (which itself can be good) – maps can conflict with one another, or with your own experience of the terrain. I’m working on a long narrative involving David Thompson, the greatest map-maker of the fur trade era in North America. He was literally creating the maps as he went. And of course his interactions were with people whose culture did no formal mapping. Creatively different perspectives…

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I love this alternative viewpoint about maps creating disconnect. You’re SO right, Lorne. I have a book that contains maps of local Native American Indian ruins, and there are plenty of disconnects re: the drawings and how they mesh with my own knowledge of the area (which, apparently, is limited!). Your project is absolutely fascinating! Will it be published in an anthology, magazine, book?

    I’m so interested in non-mapping cultures and how they got their bearings (I often think that, living in the west… How on earth did the native Indians know where they were? It all looks THE SAME!)

    [Reply]

  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    Ah, Melissa, this post made me smile. Why? Because my personal obsession is maps. I love following maps, yes (if I were you, I’d be happy to let the expert lead but I’d want to see where she was taking me on a map), but I love the beauty of maps, of what they tell about the mapmaker and the priorities of the map reader. My creative writing of late has focused on antique maps, in particular two 17th Century cartographers. Kudos to tapping in to a creative vein that means so much to me.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You are a man of many obsessions, Patrick. Bacon AND maps. I really never thought about the personality and priorities behind the mapmaker who is telling his own story, but wow… such a great point. Antique maps of 17th century cartographers – that sounds absolutely wonderful. I confess that I struck this creative vein purely by accident, but was excited about how fruitful the exercise was for me!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    The hikes with your hiking partner sound wonderful, Melissa. Lucky you to have a good friend who enjoys the outdoors so much. Beautiful photos. Were those taken in spring?
    I am so excited! I’ve seen that woodpecker in our yard, and now I know it’s name! Thank you.

    Your thoughts on maps gave me the reminder I needed. I am having trouble coming up with some place names in my WIP. I’m going to try your suggestion and see if it helps jar something loose. Thanks again!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    SO jealous you’ve seen a ladder-back. We have gila woodpeckers coming out the WAZOO down here (they love to bang on the roof, on the top of the flagpole, on the hummingbird feeder), but I’ve never seen one of these guys. LOVE their zebra stripes, don’t you?

    I hope the map review shakes some ideas loose! Good luck.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Fear of Writing Says:

    I loved the title of this post! It had me intrigued as to what you would present to go with it. You certainly delivered on the promise of your title. Everything about this was great value – from the photos (especially the woodpecker; one of my favorite birds) to your profound thoughts and explorations with maps.

    It’s wonderful that you have a friend who knows the area and can map your hikes. (That’s what I have Brian for, but his skills are going rusty here in urban Ohio :~( And you’ve made marvelous use of maps for your WIP. You’ve done it so much more thoroughly than I would have thought of.

    While writing my first screenplay (set in NM) I did use maps in a book to figure out the route of a train. For my second screenplay, I used Google Maps to look at houses and businesses in the town in Oregon where my movie takes place. I’d lived in that town myself for a brief spell, but that was 12-13 years ago so I really appreciated the visual cues and reminders.

    ~ Milli

    P.S. We have a woodpecker here that looks very similar. He comes to the tree outside my window sometimes, which is always very exciting.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks so much for your support Milli, and reading all my back blogs. You and Brian need to get out of the urban setting and hike someplace nearby – around Berlin Lake? I can totally relate to having to go back to maps to ‘refresh the memory.’ That was initially why I went to the PA maps. I was pleasantly surprised to get so much more than setting insight!

    Hope you capture a pic of that woodpecker who visits your house!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    Love this, Melissa! When I moved away from Miami, I had to rely on maps to take me places in my WIP that I could no longer go to physically. I also used Google Earth a few times, and it helped me appreciate things about my hometown that I’d never noticed before. I guess seeing it from that bird’s eye view instead of close-up was eye-opening.

    Beautiful pictures, as always! You are so lucky to live amongst such gorgeous surroundings. It makes me realize I need to get out more 😉

    [Reply]

  • avatar Leah Says:

    Great post and photos as always. I had not thought of the map idea for developing place in a WIP. Really like that idea. I think if I can visually “see” a place it will help me write it better. Will be trying that one!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Suzie Ivy Says:

    I always love your posts and photos but this was absolutely beautiful. I’m getting out some maps this weekend. Thank you for the suggestion.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    What a great idea, Melissa! I am so geographically inept that I sometimes become daunted while trying to come up with plot locations. Your tips will greatly help. By the way, cannot wait to get my eyes on your book–it sounds so intriguing!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    What a wonderfully inventive post, Melissa. I love this idea–and couldn’t agree more that we benefit, as writers and life explorers, when we veer off the path. As in outlining, too often we fixate on a map, and think we know where we HAVE to go, but like so many things, the journey is as important as the destination. Even places in our novels that we think we know, as you say, we can always see in a different light–in fact, I think it’s crucial to keeping the landscape as fresh for us the writer as we want to make it for our reader.

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Great point about the correlation between maps and novel outlines! I do general outlines but HAVE to leave myself the flexibility to veer off path. Love your perspective of “freshness” for the writer as well as the reader.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    What a STINKING good idea!! I never really thought about it, but now that I do, I’m sure I’ll unearth some fantabulous treasure. Speaking of Google Earth, did you see “The Office” episode where Jim pulls up the Google Earth picture of Dwight’s farm? And he and Moes are on a see-saw out front?Hhahahahaha!!!!

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    Ha. Now I KNOW you must come to the Tucson workshop; you ALSO love The Office (and, yes, I saw that hilarious Google Earth teeter-totter episode). Hilarious.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Hallie Sawyer Says:

    I am a map freak. I like to know where I am going and where I’ve been. On vacation, it gives me a better sense of the place I’m visiting as I like to picture the layout in my head. And so when my husband says, “I think it is this way,” I can tell him he’s wrong. I have consulted the map, therefore I am right.

    I found a great map when I was researching my novel. Through the Kansas State HIstorical Society, I found a map of land plats and their owners for the county my story is set in. Then I used those names to do some document research and found some of their biographies. Very cool.

    Also, I really love when novels have map in the front of the book when the setting is like a character in the story. I “get” the story more.

    Moral of this comment? I like maps. 🙂

    [Reply]

    avatar

    Melissa Reply:

    I especially appreciated your enthusiasm for being able to tell your husband he’s wrong. Ha ha. I LOVE your discovery from the Historical Society; sounds like it provided excellent fodder in much the same way my maps have. Hmm. MAP in FOB… Like that idea as well.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Nina B Says:

    What a great idea! Good potential for theme tie-in, character traits, etc. Love it!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Abi Burlingham Says:

    What a brilliant post. I love the photos, especially the woodpecker. We have a greater spotted woodpecker visit us here in out garden, but I have never seen a ladder-back – I’m fairly sure we don’t get them in the UK. I love the idea of using maps to help write and get a sense of place. I tend to draw my own maps, but had never thought of using a real one before. I will try this for my YA, as it’d be really helpful for me to know more about the land and coastal areas that will feature in the book. Thanks for the tip!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    I love the pictures, Melissa. I do consult maps whenever I visit a new town.

    I sure do envy you your hiking trips. Wish I was nearby so we could hike together 🙂

    Have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

    [Reply]

  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    I really like the idea of referencing maps for use in a WIP, that’s pretty neat and would add another layer to draw in readers. I’m doing a version of that with my WIP, even though it’s 1,000 years in the future with about 6,000 worlds in it. 😛 But verisimilitude as you mentioned is helpful!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Tracy Mangold Says:

    I love maps. I love learning about an area and investigating. Sometimes when we are driving, even road names or fire numbers, little roughly made paths into the woods will trigger ideas. Of course my problem is getting them down onto paper…but still the places ideas come from amaze me always. One of my favorite things to do when hiking or even driving, is to take that “other path”. I love following deer trails and seeing where they come out. It’s magical to wander about and find yourself in a completely different place. I always manage to find my way back – directionals were/are never an issue for me. I miss being up in the mountains and trotting down unknown trails on my horse, ducking under trees and thick brush until these beautiful little openings pop up before my eyes revealing a hidden meadow. So much scope for the imagination, yes? Merry Christmas, Melissa!

    [Reply]

  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    Wonderful advice, as always, dear! Since I write fantasy the map is in my own head, but I ALWAYS draw one out…so I can keep the details of where everyone is going straight in my head. Otherwise, I’ll refer to things as south on one page and north on the next…etc. etc. xoxo

    [Reply]

Leave a Comment