I retired early to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. It seems like only yesterday that I stepped off at Springer Mountain in Georgia and six months and eight days later, completed the journey at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
I'd written a few short stories, but was not planning to write any kind of book about my thru-hike. I'd been hiking and climbing for many years and simply wanted to enjoy the experience of a long-distance hike on the famed A.T.
Only a few weeks into the trek, I was hiking alone in a forest when the sky darkened. A storm was brewing and I felt nervous. Vulnerable. I remember thinking, could I defend myself if I were attacked by another human? And that's the thought that began my idea for a thriller. Over the next weeks, I kept thinking about a plot. I decided I would make the novel a thru-hike but how would I keep readers interested? A fugitive escaping on the trail came to mind. But why would a fugitive want to physically hike from GA to ME?
I decided to have the fugitive--antagonist--enter the A.T. in North Carolina, where he's wanted for murder. I initially planned my hero to be a Vietnam vet based loosely on me, except that he was responsible for a tragedy in 'Nam and returned with PTSD. Some of this had to change later, but in the Georgia and North Carolina forests, I was putting the plot together. I loved the fact that A.T. thru-hikers go only by trail names (mine was Hamlet) which offers anonymity to the fugitive. My villain also drops a lot of weight and grows a beard. In only a couple of months, sporting sun-glasses, the fugitive is unrecognizable and nobody knows where he is.
But the big problem remained: Why does my antagonist stay on the trail? What motivates him to grind it out as a thru-hiker day after day. All at once it came to me. He preys on women. Young women thru-hike the trail, and their numbers increase every year. Now I had my book! (Not just another walk in the woods!)