How Laying a Dry Stone Wall is Like Writing a Novel

Darcy Scott here, feeling nostalgic on this crisp November morning and remembering another such day maybe ten years back when, after reluctantly bailing on the oh-so-romantic but completely impractical idea of spending Maine winters shivering aboard our sailboat in Kittery, we decided to suck it up and move ashore for the coldest of the winter months. The fact our boat was also our home posed a serious logistical problem until we happened to spot a “For Sale” sign pointing the way to a piece of land high on a bluff. We jumped on it, and giddy with possibility, designed our new house over martinis and began to build. 

While my husband and his cronies sawed wood and slung hammers, I cast about for a project of my own, eventually hitting on the idea of building a stonewall. A dry-laid stonewall, no less. It would be my first, but I’d watched any number of these things go up over the years. How hard could it be, after all?

The early stages

As I sourced my materials—rocks of various sizes and shapes that I dug, rolled and otherwise manhandled to my chosen spot at the top of the drive—I was forming a loose mental plan, choosing long, flat rocks as my basic building blocks, while saving smaller, oddly-shaped pieces for corners and architectural features, if you will. Piles here; piles there; piles, piles everywhere.   

Then it hit me. This very organic process was exactly the approach I take when writing my novels: sourcing and loosely organizing my raw material (rocks vs. research and character notes); strategically setting those building blocks to support the weight of what was to come, while holding aside the elements that would eventually flesh everything out (a gnarly, angled granite corner piece vs. a good plot twist, for instance). Think of it more as an action plan than an outline, which is something that’s never really worked for me. Before I began my first novel, Hunter Huntress (Snowbooks, LTD., UK, 2010), I spent three months on a detailed outline I tossed when my characters began going their own merry way. I then cobbled together another based on the direction in which the first few chapters seemed to be heading, and ended up chucking that as well. Lesson learned. Now I loosely plot maybe three chapters out, and I’ve stuck with that strategy ever since.

Back to the wall. As I worked, I found myself setting aside certain pieces—too long, too bulky, too lovely to be overshadowed by the bits around them—trusting that I’d know where they should go when the time came. Bouts of self-doubt inevitably set in, of course, as they do with any creative project. Should I make the wall higher? Longer? Wider?  (Should I beef up the chapter with additional detail or insert a few more bits of the subplot?)

As the wall took shape, so did the house. The men were on to the electrics, plumbing, and heat by this time, and with an ever-increasing number of sub-contractors making their way up the drive, it was inevitable that a truck or two or three would back into my rocky expanse, dislodging some portion of the narrative— I mean stonewall. Undaunted, I rebuilt time and time again, despite what was clearly a faulty design. Wrong location, too low to be seen in the rearview, not substantial enough to withstand being hit—take your pick. It was a tough moment, not unlike the process of re-writing a chapter that’s not really working—one you can’t quite let go of. Until you finally do.

Eventually I gave up on the thing, just as I’d abandoned a few early manuscripts as hopelessly flawed. A heartbreaker for sure, but a good lesson in the end, and one not without its own bittersweet rewards. It just might be that success equates less with the end result than with the creative process that gets you there. Turns out, the top of the drive works just as well for the luxuriant bank of daffodils that rises to greet me each spring. 

I’ll take it.

Darcy Scott (Winner, 2019 National Indie Excellence Award; Best Mystery, 2013 Indie Book Awards; Silver Award, 2013 Readers Favorite Book Awards; Bronze Award, 2013 IPPY Awards) is a live-aboard sailor and experienced ocean cruiser with more than 20,000 blue water miles under her belt. For all her wandering, her summer home and favorite cruising grounds remain along the coast of Maine—the history and rugged beauty of its sparsely populated out-islands serving as inspiration for much of her fiction, including her popular Maine-based Island Mystery Series. Her debut novel, Hunter Huntress, was published in 2010 by Snowbooks, Ltd., UK.

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