A year ago, in January, while taking a break from writing my new novel, The Carrion Birds, I stood on a dune in White Sands National Monument and watched a couple fighter planes dip down out of the sky. I’d taken a small detour from the marked path and walked for ten minutes to the north. I didn’t really have a plan, but I’d heard taking even the smallest side trip from the trail could end in disaster. Caught out there at night the temperatures in the New Mexico desert can drop into the single digits, turning the gypsum sand hard as ice, and making any night out there like sleeping on a frozen lake. In the day, if the wind kicks up it can become difficult to fix a position from the surrounding mountain range or even to figure a straight path. The dunes constantly shifting and the sand mounding like waves on an angry ocean.
I didn’t have much more of a plan than to get lost for a few minutes. I wanted to feel a little afraid—to not know where I was going. As it was, I was in New Mexico to fill out the novel I was working on. I wasn’t there to find a new path but to make sure the novel I had already written seemed accurate—I was there to make sure my imagination hadn’t gotten the better of me.
Before I start in on a novel, I do little more than read. I try to find books that will move me one way or another. I try to find writers who can set a scene and then bring a character to life within that scene. It’s about the only thing that’s important to me. Because in my own work, I’m trying to do much the same by painting my own scenes and bringing my own characters out of the back of my mind in order to find a place in this world for them.
I tend not to do research. I don’t like outlines. And day-to-day, I have very little idea where I’m going. I find it makes for a more fluid storyline. One that isn’t set in stone as to what a certain character must do or where they must go. Instead, they are free to roam. If something occurs to me in the process of the day, then I go off and explore that direction. I won’t tell you it’s always successful, but I will say that many of my favorite bits of writing, from action to dialogue to even the endings of both of my novels, have come out of this process.
It’s good to feel a little scared. It’s also good not to know where you’re going. It makes for exciting days. Like the one a year or so ago when I stood on a dune and watched a couple fighter planes dip out of the sky like something out of Apocalypse Now. The bombs they dropped hammering into the earth a few miles away and the sound reverberating off the mountains in what seemed like an endless echo.
To be honest, it scared the shit out of me. I’d struggled for ten minutes up one dune and then down into the trough before the next. The muscles in my thighs felt like they were on fire and I was standing there on the top of that dune catching my breath when I saw the planes dip their wings in a final turn, drop the bombs, then rise up in a gradual arc and disappear over the far mountains. The ground they left behind was a charred stain of rock and sand.
For a brief moment, I thought about going on but then looked at that stain in the middle of the plain, down there at the edge of the dunes, and decided it was probably time to turn around. I’d had a good time. A small adventure away from the path everyone else was taking.
Of course I do research on my novels. It’s what I call walking around in the desert when I really have no business to be there. It’s the sort of thing I do when the project is as close to done as my mind has the power to make it. I don’t like to turn away from the page once I’ve started. And I only really turn around when I come up against something as dangerous as a missile range.
For me it’s always been about making my own path somewhere between the one already made and the one leading to a charred patch of earth somewhere in the middle of no-man’s-land. And then knowing when to turn around before becoming a charred patch of earth somewhere in the middle of no-man’s-land.
Urban Waite’s latest novel, The Carrion Birds, is due out April 16, 2013, from William Morrow.