Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

Downtown Griffin, GA by Amber Rhea

Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.

My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.

“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”

Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.

Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.

“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.

“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”

We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.

(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)


This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.

Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”

I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.

Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.

(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)

For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.

Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.


Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectifymy favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).

And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.

“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”

And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”

And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.

Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.

For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.

How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?



Filed under writing

55 responses to “Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

  1. Pingback: TomSlatin.com | 50 Written Blog Posts You Should Read

  2. Love your winding tale and your destination.

  3. If you ask me, setting is extremely important to the story, bedcause the environment informs the character. And depending on the story, the setting could be based on places I’ve been, or places straight out of my imagination. It all depends.

  4. Enjoyed your storytelling and viewpoint. I love it when stuff like that happens – that’s why it’s always important to leave room for the unexpected. Going without a plan, ignoring a map, not listening for directions – all great ways to find synchronicity.

  5. Yes! The more specific we are in our descriptions, the more universal the message, it would seem. Everywhere = nowhere, somewhere = everywhere. Great story of unexpected adventure… I too enjoy life without maps!

    • What a paradox! I feel sort of stupid coming to this realization only recently, because one of my strengths has always been coming up with concrete details to ground a story in reality (usually as a characterization device though–I’m all about characterization).

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. Could relate to the big picture that you put there. Thanks for the insight.

  7. When creating a story or novel, I always consider setting as one of the major characters. I’m thinking where would Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises be without Spain and A Farewell to Arms without Italy, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby be without West Egg, Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again without North Carolina, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath without Oklahoma, Alice Munro without Ontario, Anne Tyler without Baltimore, Jack Kerouac without the road, James Joyce without Dublin. On and on I could go. Treat the setting as a character when you begin a story and a novel and I think you will have a winner. The setting molds the character in ways that the author doesn’t always realize.

    • I totally agree. Some advice I’ve always heard but never paid much attention to (until recently) is to take your story and set it somewhere else, and if it can stay exactly the same with no needed alterations, you need to develop your setting more. Not all stories need such a thoroughly-developed setting, of course, but it’s definitely something that could be considered because of the massive potential payoff.

  8. And never forget about the impact of Hogwarts on Harry Potter.

  9. Setting is a comfortable place where you know the local and streets. I lived for a while in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and therefore used it a setting for my serial killer book.

    • I’ve tried to set stories in places I’ve never been but they always end up fuzzy or downright wrong. I like using Google Maps and Earth for getting things laid out properly but that only goes so far. You can’t tell local atmosphere from a satellite image, that’s for sure.

      Thanks for reading!

  10. echoessilencepatienceandgrace

    I loved this post! Thank you for sharing your adventure.
    I couldn’t believe it when I started reading because I know exactly what you were looking for! I live in an even smaller middle of nowhere town about 15 miles south of Griffin, GA! Did you know they’ve been filming AMC’s “The Walking Dead” around Griffin, Zebulon and Thomaston, Georgia all summer?

    • Thanks for your kind words, and nice to meet a fellow Georgian! I didn’t know for sure they were filming but I knew they had in the past, so I was constantly on the lookout for film crews and TV stars. I’ve loved soaking up the familiar scenery in The Walking Dead. It makes it feel more real to me (if that can possibly be considered a good thing, considering the subject matter!)

  11. I love how even this blog post exemplifies the point you’re trying to make. This is really fluid writing, I like your style! 🙂

    Check out my blog as well if you get a chance, I’m an aspiring writer who’s putting a lot of his thoughts on (electronic) paper and would love some feedback. Thanks again and I shall leave you with a follow!

  12. Inspiration hits me at odd times. I’ll be reading a magazine, or watching a show or just walking down the road and bang…there it is. Sometimes I jot it down, others I tell myself…”I’ll remember it, cuz it’s so awesome!” and of course immediately proceed to forget. So my road never stays on course and when writing, I usually have some kind of plan how I want the story to go, but then I veer off-course because something else has caught my attention.

    Go with the flow…great novels and stories can be written while you’re lost, because it’s all about the adventure.

    • Hopefully you forgot because they weren’t as awesome as you thought. I heard Stephen King say that once, and it’s a nice thought. Thank you for reading my piece, and I’m glad you like the adventure as much as me. 🙂

  13. They weren’t or…yeh…I would’ve remembered. 😀

  14. Loved your post. I’m an printmaker, so my works of art often require a lot of planning. However, I sometimes come up with the best ideas and make connections between things I would have otherwise never connected when I’m just letting myself free-draw whatever images I gather together and mash up.

    • I think parts of our brain start firing whenever we get “into the zone,” parts that more easily make those connections. At least for me, I feel like I’m able to see the entire picture (which is good for visual arts because well, it’s all about seeing things in unique ways).

      When I was writing this post, I knew I wanted to talk about us getting lost and somehow relate it to “outlining vs. pantsing” a novel, but it wasn’t until I started getting into it that I was able to tie it back around to setting. Because until then, I couldn’t really articulate the changes that had occurred in my writing, just that they were there.

      ANYWAY, thanks for reading! And I went through Macon a couple months ago on my way to Savannah and stopped at the Native American burial mounds there. Pretty nifty.

      • “I think parts of our brain start firing whenever we get ‘into the zone,’ parts that more easily make those connections.”

        Yes! I think that’s totally true. And they are strange and mysterious parts that I can’t even recognize what they do exactly. Sometimes I feel like it relates back to that scientific principle about how observing an act/experiment changes it. So, we need these bouts of random exploration and discovery to get to new places sometimes!

        The Mounds are a lovely place to walk! And they have a great festival if I recall. Used to go there a lot as a kid.

        • “Sometimes I feel like it relates back to that scientific principle about how observing an act/experiment changes it. So, we need these bouts of random exploration and discovery to get to new places sometimes!”

          …which I can’t even wrap my head around but you’re right, you’re so totally right. And you’ve given me a whole new way to ponder this subject. Off to do some scientific research…

  15. (I’m also a fellow Georgian, by the way. Grew up in Macon.) -Hannah

  16. I apologize for not being from Georgia. I do, however, get lost often, and sometimes on purpose. It is in exploring the unknown that we can find the unexpected and special.
    I have many points while writing a draft that I’ll think, well, why not branch out here, and explore this unknown path, and then have it somehow loop back into an earlier idea I had set aside for one reason or another.
    Writing is a process of exploration. Planning can help focus it – and I intend on experimenting more with planning in the future. However, I think it is important to explore the uncharted.

    • You are forgiven for not being from Georgia, but do try harder next time.

      I kinda get a high from seeing how the unpredictable things that pop up while writing connect with previous things or give me ideas for future things. It’s unreal.

      And experimenting with planning sounds like it could be dangerous. Make sure you wear all the proper protective gear.

  17. Love this post! I had a similar journey, and now my beta reader’s say that one of the things they love about the book is that they can tell it’s a real place.

  18. Thanks for the ride today! Loved it.

  19. I agree about the value of not knowing where one’s writing is headed, but following it anyway. As you point out, my writing is often much better when I’m not trying to control it. Enjoyed the post!

  20. Awesome. I feel better about not planning my stories out more. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when I don’t pre-write my books with outlines and pages of plans on where I’m going with them.

    • There’s no wrong way to write as long as it works for you! You can write it in blood on butcher paper taped to your wall if it works (though I would be a little concerned for your mental, not going to lie.)

      • Oh, I know I’m mental already. 😉 But I reserve blood for donations to the blood bank. Usually I try to ignore the “rules of writing process” but occasionally, people on the groups I follow are all talking about the same thing. Then I start wondering if what I’m doing is wrong. Silly, I know. Just nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  21. Real life experience comes into all my writing. I thought i was cheating until I watched Ian Fleming’s life story and realised that he grabbed most of his ideas for his personal experience. Shaken not stirred!!

    • Dang. Really? Why can’t I have an awesomely exciting life to mine for some kind of spytastic fiction? All I got is run-of-the-mill coming-of-age stuff. Which, like, everyone’s got.

      But oh no. You’re definitely not cheating.

  22. Hi Whats past- I wondered if you would allow me to do a guest post on one of your posts? If you want, read my blog and find out what type of stuff I write?

    Thank you, Hefty Journie

  23. lauraeflores

    I’m not sure I’d be able to writing anything without personal experience. It filters through to everything, not that I directly use stories I’ve heard or things I’ve experienced… People I’ve seen and so forth, in my own writing, but the influence is there.
    Funny story, me and my hubby were driving from the east coast to the west coast (US), we wanted to drive through NYC, but somehow ended on the wrong road, so we found ourselves in Buffalo, NY. It was hilarious, when we realized 100 miles into driving that wait a minute… Where are we going again?

  24. Laura Lee

    I love your tale of being lost and when you are ‘found’ again (in that you know where you are) the end result is immensely better or more valuable than the intended end point. I think being lost is actually a journey that if embraced ends in finding something amazing. I recommend reading ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’. One of my favorite books.

    • I think, if we rely too much on having a plan, we’re bound to be disappointed when that plan must inevitably be altered. I know I’m much happier if I resist the urge to anticipate and allow things to happen as they will. I try to neither get my hopes up nor allow them to be shattered (easier said than done, of course). It’s all about expectations. None of us can foresee or control future events. I try to be content with what I have.

      That book looks fascinating, I will add it to my ever-growing pile of unread books.

  25. Laura Lee

    Ahh, I have one of those as well. Not the worst thing to have an excess of, though!

  26. I think characters and setting are the most important elements of a story. If you have a vague but plausible idea of where it’s all going to end up, then the journey can be really fun, especially, when your nearing the end and your characters decide, all by themselves, to do something really amazing that you would never have thoutht of in the first place.

  27. Michael Philip Kashgarian

    Writing does not follow the laws of nature. I wrote and published an ebook novel (“John Doe Versus Death”) and I disregarded any rules of setting (whether it made a difference, I don’t know). When it comes to writing fiction, everyone must follow his/her own rules. I’m glad you found what works for you.

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