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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.