Get Out the Map: Why Knowing Where You Are Matters in Fiction
Posted August 1, 2012on:
I love maps. I admit it, I’m a map obsessive, and I always have been. When I was a little kid I made a huge cardboard map of the streets in my town–and it was almost 100% accurate. I may have forgotten a few streets here and there, but the upshot was that I’d looked at the map of Newington so many times that I had it basically memorized. I can still tell you where Twenty Rod Rd. is, even though I can barely remember where I’ve left my purse.
I also love books with maps in them. Fantasy books are great for maps, thanks in large part to the fantastic ones Christopher Tolkien drew for his father’s books. Some science fiction books have them, too–such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, which sometimes will have a very simple map of the Hegen Hub in it. Most speculative fiction books don’t have maps, which is fine. But it’s still a really good idea to have some conception of where your characters are. Very simple things can profoundly affect what happens in a particular world. Take, for instance, this map of the Confederation (see the Extrahumans series) that I whipped up:
THE SPARK, which releases on August 28th, is in part about an uprising on Mandolia. If you look at the map, you’ll notice that Mandolia is pretty far away from Earth and Calvasna, which are the most populous and capital worlds of the Confederation respectively. Earth and Calvasna are the heart of power for the Confederation, and Valen and Mandolia, where our characters can sometimes find a little bit of wiggle room around government repression, are out on the fringe. That distance allows a lot of the events in the book to happen without an immediate crackdown.
Even then, it’s good for me to know which planets are near which other planets. Mandolia and Valen are very close, which impacts travel time and communication, and there’s a lot of traffic between the two worlds. Quela, on the other hand, isn’t really all that close to anything.
Here’s another example of a map I’m working on:
This is for a fantasy project, and it shows two major things: one being the size of the Sona Empire now, and the other being how large the Sona Empire was a long time before the story takes place. Therefore a major piece of history is very clear on the map. A few other spots on the map are labeled. I can use this map, which keeps evolving, to track where my characters are and what their world is like. The book begins at the Yastine Convent, which is in the mountainous north of the empire, near the border, far away from the capital. That makes it a certain kind of place, and certain kinds of things can happen there.
I didn’t have a firm grasp on this story until I drew this version of the map. I must have drawn and redrawn it a dozen times before I got it right. Once I did, though, I had a better grasp of where all the players were and what was possible. I could see where the protagonist would travel, and I could see where the book would end up. I also knew what was crucial to this world, and what the story would revolve around. I knew some of these things already, but the map helped me place those abstract ideas into something more concrete.
I don’t think I’d put either map in an actual book right now, and I certainly don’t have to. Sometimes readers don’t need maps to follow along. I always liked imagining the geography of Narnia and Prydain as a reader; I didn’t need to see it. But if you’re writing fiction, whether fantasy, SF or contemporary, it’s not a bad idea to have some kind of map to keep track of where things are, and what everyone’s doing. That map can be anything from what I’ve created here to a simple diagram showing where the various buildings on the street where your story is set are located. For THE SPARK I drew a crude street map of First Landing, so I knew where in the city Dee was and where she could go next.
Maps are a great way to think about fictional worlds, no matter their scale or genre. if a writer really knows the space her characters are in and uses it well, the world starts to seem more three-dimensional to the reader.