Nothing looked familiar in the dense east Texas woods. I faced a different direction with the same results, seeing nothing but trees no matter where I looked. I was completely and utterly lost in the thick pine and hardwood forest of the historic Trinity River bottoms where people have disappeared without ever being found.
I’m an experienced outdoorsman, so I checked the sky to orient myself, but the dense clouds and coming twilight provided nothing but a dark gray blanket so thick that not even a glow revealed the sun’s location.
A deep gully to my left was the best way out, because I remembered it intersected the two-lane dirt track I’d followed into the land adjacent to my friend’s forty acres. I slid down the sandy bank and followed the winding trail toward the road.
The gully should have taken me near the pool where I’d left my truck and backpack, but the land was even more unfamiliar the further I walked. It was getting darker, so I backtracked my footsteps to where I’d entered the gully and climbed out.
I stopped and glanced around, my eyes flicking from one tree to another in an effort to locate something familiar. A wide oak among the millions of hardwoods and pines stretching for thousands of acres in all directions drew me like a magnet, but when I stopped under the spreading limbs, it was just another tree.
The bottom fell out of my stomach when I finally realized I was truly lost for the first time in my life. I turned a full circle, fighting down panic, the most dangerous emotion for anyone in my situation.
People have been known to lose their heads in the wilderness, running indiscriminately through the forest. I recalled stories where searchers found clothing scattered through the woods leading to the bodies of lost hikers and hunters. I needed everything I was wearing, because my pack was on the ground where I’d shrugged it off before following a wounded wild boar into the woods.
It was unusually warm that spring evening twenty years ago, and the humidity was as high as the temperature, hovering somewhere in the high eighties. Sweat beaded on my forehead as the clouds thickened even more. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed my face and I realized I’d have to spend a thirsty, hungry, miserable the night in the woods, without anything other than the clothes on my back.
Shoulda told someone where I was going hunting.
The Trinity River bottoms of east Texas extended for miles in all direction, with little chance of finding one of the scattered farms in the region. Conventional wisdom says that when you’re lost, sit down right where you are until rescuers arrive. To wander further will only get you even more lost, farther away from help.
I immediately wished for a drink, but my water was in the pack, along with my compass, emergency rations, and anything else I’d need.
Okay, Dummy, build a fire despite the heat, to ward off mosquitoes.
My pockets proved empty except for useless keys, change, and a pocket knife.
No one knew where I was, though my bride-to-be and best friend Steve would eventually put their heads together in the next day or so and figure out where I’d gone. In the meantime, it was gonna be a long night.
There was still enough light to see, so I dropped my hat onto the ground to prepare a bed of pine needles. The hat annoyed a copperhead who immediately coiled to strike.
I shot the snake. Re-energized, I looked around for relief.
I can climb this tree and maybe I’ll see the road or truck.
Nope. The limbs started about a mile above my head.
I heard the Old Man whispering in my ear. Hey, stop, pay attention, and listen to your instincts. You’re pushing in the wrong direction.
Taking a deep breath, I scanned the area one more time. Tall pines, more tall pines, hardwoods, the gully, extra-tall pines, and a line of understory brush.
Wait, there’s no reason for thick brush right here. It doesn’t fit.
Taking one last chance, I retrieved my hat and walked to the stand of thick youpons. I pushed through just as darkness took the woods. A limb slapped me in the face, and I stumbled. I shoved against the vegetation once again and stepped out onto the two-lane dirt track. My truck was a hundred yards away.
That was the last time I ever entered the woods without my backpack and supplies. It was lesson well-learned.
That lesson taught me a lot of things and can be applied to writing. You can get lost in a manuscript, too, in a similar way, but don’t give up. You have everything you need at hand, just sit still, don’t panic, and listen. A wise author once told me that if you’re writing along and the story stalls, there’s a way to get back on track.
First, listen to your characters. You may be forcing them into a situation or dialogue that doesn’t ring true to them, and yourself. Read it as if it wasn’t yours to see what happened. If it still doesn’t work, abandon that chapter and start again, following your trail back to where you first became lost.
If dialogue’s the problem and it leads on and on without end, go back and see if it’s You that’s talking, or your characters. Get out of your head and back into theirs. Remember their traits, their habits they’ve acquired, or the backstory that guides the characters. They’ll bring you back to the road if you turn loose and let them. Backtrack out of that gully and look around. Is there a thick line of brush or something that shows the way out?
I write without an outline, or even an idea of where the story is going. Six novels, and two manuscripts later (both to be published this year), this method has yet to fail me. As I write, I allow my characters and subconscious to dictate my direction, but I keep an eye on the sun.
One story stalled for over two weeks before I remembered the Wise Author’s words. I followed my tracks back to where I became lost, deleted a chapter, and found the right trail. Since then, I’ve never been lost in a story, because my subconscious leads me to where I need to go. I’m always pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
Keep your wits in all things, and you’ll soon step out into that road leading to where you need to go.