by Nancy Means Wright

     Most mornings I walk thirty to forty minutes before the long three-four hour write-sit at the computer. This isn’t  just to exercise my heart, but to stimulate the brain. Especially for the times when I can’t think what should occur next in a story, or simply how to begin one. For it’s amazing the way something will happen during a walk and you think, aha!–just what I needed to sharpen a scene or add an intriguing new character to the mix.

     Yesterday morning, for instance, I was feeling sluggish and a bit depressed. I’d recently finished a book and needed something to jog my brain and open up my senses. What should I do next? Write a poem or short story? Begin a new novel? I was drawing a blank. So I threw on my winter parka, and entered the Battell Woods behind my house–phase one of my walk. It was 37 degrees, but I shivered with pleasure as the November leaves filled my nose with a fresh, crunchy, earthy fragrance.  From the start I didn’t lack for company, for a black cat was following on my heels. I knew enough not to touch him or he’d growl–he was feral until a neighbor began to feed him.

     I hadn’t walked ten minutes when a man with a dirty green pack on his back thrust his way through the trees. He was a homeless fellow with a mop of wild brown hair–I’d seen him once, sitting alone at a community supper. His sudden presence gave me a start, and he realized it, for he backed up a step. I’d heard that some of our homeless sleep in these woods, at least until snowfall. How would he get through the winter?

     When he scowled at my greeting, my heart picked up a beat. I mumbled somethng about “a chilly day” and offered him the banana I’d been saving for the end of my walk. He took it with a nod, peeled it back, then stooped to pat the black cat, and it didn’t growl. “It likes you,” I said, and he shrugged, then veered about and disappeared into the wood–followed by the cat! Was it his only companion? Had he been abandoned by parents, teachers, friends–was he a Robinson Crusoe, alone in a sea of trees? I was burning to know his past.


    Coming out onto Seminary Street below, I met the white-haired widower with the wire-haired terrier. I didn’t know him by name, but he’d always smile and tilt his head to squint into my eyes, as though surprised to see me here and still alive. He almost lost his balance, but a neighbor, Reverend Bob, who is some kind of minister, came jogging past and held him upright with a blue woolen arm and a broad smile. 

     Next it was Peg from my poetry workshop, squealing to a stop in her ancient Subaru to tell me about a mutual friend’s 25-year-old daughter who’d died from an overdose. “Meth, heroin,” Peg whispered, “one of those. The family blames the boyfriend.” There was a story here, I thought, but how often had it been told? As though to confirm the tragic tale, sirens screeched as an ambulance raced down the street toward town.  

     A Project Independence van was stopped in front of a house I passed every day, to pick up an elderly woman who never wanted to go. Today she was vehement, almost violent. “They yak, yak in that place,” she shouted, “all nothings! No independence about it! I can’t concentrate on my book. I want to stay in my house!” The impatient, big-bellied man-of-the-house loomed over her. “I’m late for work, Doris. You can’t stay here alone. Get in that friggin’ van, you hear?” I wanted to tell him I’d take Doris to my house. She could read her book while I wrote (while I wrote about her?) But the man shoved the wheelchair up into the van and slammed the door on it. I saw a tearful face, a fist in the window as it drove past. 

     I walked past election signs piled up behind a black iron fence; a yellow dog barked ferociously at me.  A small boy chased a ball into the street: “Get out of there,” the mother screeched, “you wanna get kilt?” A dad on a bicycle pedaled past, clasping a todder in front. I waved, and the child waved back. A middle-aged man stalked by, ignoring my greeting. He had on dark sunglasses, a zigzag scar on one cheek, a deep dimple in his chin–what should I infer from such a contradictory face? My villains tend to be ordinary people, caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

     The rest of my walk was refreshing but quiet. A friend rolled down a car window as I trudged up the final hill: “Want a ride?” I waved her on. I was in stride now, feeling great, my heart thumping from the climb. I didn’t have a situation for a story, but I had a couple of characters for it: the homeless fellow, of course, and the whitehaired widower who always responded cheerily to my “good morning.”

     Suppose the widower was well, taking a walk, passing the house of the woman who wanted to stay home to read her book–he’d seen that impatient man before, shoving the unhappy female into the van. He’d met the woman once at a church supper, found her attractive…..

              she has already left for Project Independence, but someone in the house is screaming–a neighbor? The widower enters the house to help. and lo, the impatient man is flat out on the livingroom rug with a knife in the back of his neck. And there’s a homeless man  in the kitchen, eating a banana! A cop car pulls up. Now Widower and Homeless are both suspects!  (And what about the elderly woman?)

     Whew!  I was home by now, bursting at the proverbial seams, so many images in my head I didn’t know where to start. But I’d Walked around the Block, yes! So I fixed a cup of coffee (strong), booted up my computer–and started typing.


13 Responses

  1. Great blog. Nothing creates a good plot like random meetings with ordinary but interesting people.

    • So I’ve discovered, Leigh! I need new soles on my shoes. Of course the plot is up to the writer–after the random meetings. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Very enjoyable blog, Nancy! You sure have an interesting neighborhood. My walks tend to be in the woods–no people–so I gather characters when I shop.

    • Well, shopping is a great way to do it, too, Nikki. What I like about walking in the neighborhood is that I meet some of the same people and get to “know” them a little better (even when we say nothing more than ‘good morning’)–their habits, idiosyncrasies, et al. Especially their idiosyncrasies! But, yes, we collect characters from eevrywhere, including our own families.

  3. Nancy, I also find walking helps, but in slightly different way. I tend to enter the ‘zone,’ and remain pretty much oblivious to everything except the chapter that’s playing out in my head. What I’m missing, as your post points out, is the chance to observe, and that’s a skill I know I need to work on.

    • I know what you’re saying, Anita, and I often ‘zone’ in on a question–particularly if I’m in the middle of a piece of writing–and it helps. It’s largely when I feel the need to remain open to new influences that I like to look about and observe. Both ways help ‘writers’ block,’ to be sure. And you never know when a new and highly useful thought/experience will occur while walking with your brain on ‘high.’

  4. You have hit several nerves here, for any kind of writer. As a crime writer, I agree with your idea that a good walk gets the little grey cells moving. As a person who lives in the middle of the biggest city on the planet – at least the Mayor thinks so – I always run into funny or scary situations on the streets of Manhattan – and file every encounter away in my cerebral file. So muc of what we write comes from those chance encounters – we need to invent a brain recorder!
    Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

  5. You have hit several nerves here, for any kind of writer. As a crime writer, I agree with your idea that a good walk gets the little grey cells moving. As a person who lives in the middle of the biggest city on the planet – at least the Mayor thinks so – I always run into funny or scary situations on the streets of Manhattan – and file every encounter away in my cerebral file. So much of what we write comes from those chance encounters – we need to invent a brain recorder!
    Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

    • Great to hear from a Manhattanite, Thelma! I live in Vermont and only get to the city a few times a year, but yes! a walk down a Manhattan block yields myriad characters, situations, conflicts! Especially after what you’ve just been through with “Sandy” and no power for days. I hope you have some terrific crime encounters filed away for future (and present) books. Thanks so much for your input. My country walks pale by comparison.

  6. Being a lazy sort, I sit rather than walk — in a coffee shop, a waiting room, on a museum bench. But the idea is the same: watching, listening and “recording” even if not on paper; the stimulation is there.

    • In truth, I got a long-short story out of sitting above the madding crowd in Grand Central Station, NYC, just watching the action. Wished I had some sort of telescope, But even without, the conflict and confrontations were there. I do prefer to walk, though–and see people eye to eye–and maybe, as they say, live another 24 hours because of the exercise..

  7. Walking does rev up the brain cells. Nothing like physical activity to encourage creativity. Great blog!

    • Thanks, Jacquie. I guess we writers have all discovered this. It makes me wonder about the disabled and ill who seldom get out of the house. I think of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning before she married and was bedridden. Yet she wrote some gorgeous poems. Those of us in good health are lucky.

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