I like to think of landscape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet. ~ Gretel Ehrlich
Book projects get set aside, even those with fast beating hearts that you can’t bear to be away from for a second. Sickness, holidays, other stuff pushes it away. The book’s heartbeat slows and goes quiet. You pray it’s merely hibernating.
Come spring, longing for that project rises like sap. You’ve missed it so much! You open files, re-read scenes that were so hope-filled last fall. Remember how you chatted up the project to editors? “Best thing I’ve ever done,” you crowed.
At the computer, you rearrange sentences, pretend you’re revising. When you reach the point where you quit, that cliff of white space, no words fall into place. You can’t fool the book into stepping over that chasm, continuing down the path as if nothing happened.
You must start the journey over, but not by calling back characters who have gone shy. Return to the very beginning. Before the beginning, even.
Gather photos, magazines, field guides. Collect supplies like scissors, glue, crayons, colored pencils, nothing intimidating. Clear off the dining room table. You need different surfaces, different light, an unfamiliar chair.
You’ll map the landscape of your novel in all its particulars. As William Least Heat-Moon did in PrairyErth, his deep map of Chase County, Kansas, you will drill below the dirt, pop up again in a field, lay back to gaze at stars only your characters can spy. You could buy a new spiral-bound blank book for this project, but you find a vintage ledger. The cover’s linen-like texture reminds you that you’ll be using your hands, not the keyboard. No glass will come between you and this map of your novel.
Where do your characters live, really live? Begin with the most basic element, the ground. Study the dirt and rocks. Find out why they are important. Move on to the landscape, the hills, the creek, the neighbor’s cows. Don’t leave out a thing. It may matter. It may not. Don’t decide now.
What’s in the sky? What are the seasons? What animals and birds live there? Bugs? Remember, you are never alone and neither are your characters. Does your character love one season over another? Does she trip because she’s watching a hawk scribe lazy circles? Put them all in, the animals and birds and bugs. Cut out pictures. If you can’t find a picture, draw. Take notes. If not your character’s, then your voice.
Draw a diagram of the place. Sketch its legends and scandals, its history and folklore. Even the new Starbucks has a history. What used to be in that building? What happened on that spot fifty years ago? A hundred? If you don’t know, look it up or make it up. Keep moving.
What about the house? Draw the floor plan. Did your character sign her name on the inside of her father’s desk drawer? What does she like to eat? Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza? Anything curry?
Don’t worry about making pretty pages—they won’t be hanging in the Louvre. If you run out of room, create lift-up flaps and journal underneath. While your hands stay busy snipping and pasting, your mind will clear space for the novel to ease back.
How will you know when to stop mapping and take up the story again? Your character will claim the landscape and demand to be turned loose in it. Close your deep map and hold it against your chest. Feel that second heartbeat? Now all you have to do is follow your character through her world.