One of the consequences of the wonderfully abundant snowfall we’ve enjoyed in western Maine this winter is that our snowshoe trails have turned into relatively deep slots. My wife and several of our neighbors informally maintain a series of trails along and up the smallish mountain we live beside. We have assigned them names and recorded them on a map that we share only with friends and family, but because the area is adjacent to the Sunday River Ski Area other folks make their way onto our trails. That’s perfectly fine, but this year the number of snowshoers, the amount of snow, and the persistent cold temperatures that have prevented the typical pattern of shrinkage have combined to produce those slots.
The slots are up to a foot and a half deep and just wide enough for two snowshoes. I’m sure some folks find them comforting—you can’t get lost—I think they’re unduly confining. My preferred snowshoes are wider than most because I like the heavy grippers on the bottom that newer and slimmer versions don’t have. Moreover, the depth of the slots makes it hard to use poles because the heavier snow in which to plant them is at a level that means you can’t maintain a steady pace. For me, rhythmic poling is one of the pleasures of snowshoeing.
What all this has to do with writing mystery novels occurred to me recently when my wife and I decided to escape the slots and head into open woods. Breaking trail is of course tiring, especially with snow depths over five feet, but it’s also fun because you escape into untracked areas of great beauty with only the occasional deer or hare track to remind you you’re not really alone. But my recent experience with heading off the trail was a reminder that those slots I was escaping have their use. Crossing what turned out to be a deep ravine that had been covered over to appear at the same level as the rest of the woods, I fell into a hole and ended up on my back, feeling like a turtle held down by his shell with my feet and arms in the air above me and no way to get traction. After some futile rolling about and trying to plant my poles below me, I called on my wife for help. She hadn’t yet crossed the ravine and so was able to stand and eventually get close enough to reach and push the release on my snowshoes. Now I was able to twist enough to get my feet, unburdened by the snowshoes, onto something like firm ground. With enough grunting and pushing and the occasional curses I finally managed to extract myself, reattach my snowshoes—and head immediately back to those slotted trails we had left behind 10 minutes earlier.
The lesson hit me later: slotted trails are like the constraints of literary genres—mysteries, romances, fantasy. They help a writer make choices and signal expectations to a reader. But they can also become boring, repetitive, constraining. That’s when the writer is tempted to head off into the untracked woods, dropping conventions and trying something new in plot or character development. Fun, yes, but potentially a trap requiring rescue. Frost of course made the same point when he compared free verse to playing tennis with the nets down. A winter lover himself, he might well have used my metaphor instead.
At the moment I’m having trouble with a new sort-of mystery I’m writing, trying to break the pattern of my earlier Maybe my recent snowshoe experience is trying to tell me something: get back in the slot.