Making a Deep Map

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.

Maybe not.

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.

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8 years ago

Just plain WOW. TY.

7 years ago

Dou­ble WOW. Thank you for this!