When I was doing research for my middle grade novel, Red Fox Road, I drove down to a writers' retreat in a beautiful, windswept region known as the Oregon outback. There I spent two weeks in a cabin gazing out across a dry desert lake called a playa, and listening to the fierce wind attempt to tear the shingles from my cabin roof. Between periods of writing, I explored the lonely hills and caves that have been used by humans for fifteen thousand years.
On my drive back home to Canada, I did what I always do on long trips, which I sometimes call writing while driving. I daydream. I compose sentences. I work out plot details. One issue was giving me a bit of trouble. Why did my characters take the shortcut that would lead to them getting stranded on a remote road in the Oregon wilderness?
I needed gas, so I pulled into a small town gas station. I went in the store and bought a bag of chips. Then I drove for about an hour, when I noticed a sign that said I was heading west. I was supposed to be heading north. In fact, I realized, I was not even on the same highway I thought I'd been on. I pulled out my paper map, which I luckily had, since there was no cell service, and I quickly realized my error. I hadn't noticed that the gas station in the small town I'd stopped at was at a crossroads, and when I'd driven out, I'd taken the wrong exit and started down the highway in a completely different direction.
Checking my map, I noticed a skinny line that should take me back onto another road that would then connect with the highway I meant to be on. I considered the shortcut. Did it go through mountains? Could it be muddy or snowy or gravel? I had no idea.
So I decided to spend the extra hour and backtrack to the gas station where I'd made my error. I didn't want to end up lost or stranded like the characters in my book. Frustrated with the waste of time, I cursed myself for daydreaming while driving. Until I realized that I had solved my problem of how my characters get stranded. I used my mistake to explain their detour in Red Fox Road.