Walking backward into reality

So, I walked to work today.

Those of you who know me RT might be saying, “Why did you walk so far?!”  Well, it’s only eight and a half miles, and I had several good reasons — all of which can help improve your writing.

1. A healthy body makes for a healthy brain.  Even if you’re an almost completely intellectual type, and not at all into physical activity, your body is still the power plant for your brain.  Studies show (and I hate when people say that without citing the studies, but here I go) that physical exercise can help brain function.

And brain function is how you write, right?

Just imagine the health benefits of a good three hour walk.  I don’t know the calorie conversion formula, but it’s probably fairly simple math … 6’0″, 185 lbs, 8.5 miles at a brisk but unhurried pace … clickety-clack on the calculator and bingo: healthy.

2. Walking is how the people in my WIP would get around.  Sometimes those of us who live in the modern world but write about a more primitive one can forget what it’s like to do without 21st Century conveniences.  Like kids watching a movie from the 1980s who ask, “why doesn’t he just call her on his cell phone?” sometimes we need a lesson in how the simpler world works.

Taking a walk puts me (somewhat) in the heads of my characters, who live in a world with technology resembling that of our world’s late 18th and early 19th centuries.

It’s a research method I use a lot, in fact.  For example, before re-writing a scene in which my main character was trudging through a surprise snow storm to kill a fugitive, I waited for snow and headed outside with some wood and metal objects to simulate the feel of the various parts of the character’s gun — living in the city, it would have been problematic to march down the street slinging an actual firearm. 

And, among other details, the particularly painful way the metal scraped against the back of my “trigger finger” made its way into the text.  Putting yourself into the physical and psychological circumstances of your characters can really buff up the realism in your fiction.

3. Any break in routine can kick your creativity into high gear.  Not sure where I first read this bit of advice, but it certainly works for me.  Breaking your routine brings new sights and sounds to your brain, firing up dormant neurons that can in turn spark new thoughts.  This not only applies to your commute, but the sorts of books you read, the food you eat, the coffee shop you frequent, the clothes you wear, the room where you sleep, etc.

Quick experiment?  Spinal fortitude permitting, try taking a nap on the floor.  Or, more comfortably, just sleep with your head at the foot of your bed.  See if you don’t get a little boost of energy.

4. Doing things the hard way makes the “regular” way seem less obnoxious.  This is related to reason #2, but it’s more about hacking our feelings about the world than hacking our ideas about it.  The first time I took this walk it was from work to home, and I noticed something interesting driving home the next workday: the commute seemed far shorter, and less frustrating, than it normally did.

Sometimes, I think we 21st century humans fail to realize how spoiled we are by our technology.  A commute that would take three hours on foot somehow becomes an unbearable ordeal when traffic stretches those 9 miles into 45 minutes or — God spare us! — a full hour.  Getting a little perspective by occasionally ditching the modern conveniences can help us better appreciate our status quo.

Think your butt hurts after sitting in a car seat for an hour?  Try walking three hours and see how your feet feel.  (Spoiler: they feel fantastically sore, if only for a short while.)

You can apply this to writing by scratching out a short story on a legal pad, or dusting off the old Smith Corona to experience a world without backspace, cut-and-paste, or spellcheck.  That obnoxious word processor will seem like a sci-fi dream after “roughing it” old-school for a while.

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