Never Eat Shredded Wheat: What do maps bring to stories?4 min read
When did you last use a road map? And I’m not talking about GPS or Google Maps on your phone. I mean a real, fold out (then struggle to fold back correctly), road map. Maybe a year ago? Five years ago? Road maps are designed to help you get from one place to another, but they also perform the important function of providing scale. When we think about maps, we shouldn’t just be thinking of the journey route we need to take, but also the scale of that journey.
“How is this related to writing?” I hear you say. Well I thought we could talk a bit about the maps we come across in the front of books.
It’s most often fantasy novels that use maps (and books on geography, I guess). Fantasy novels often use the big trope of the quest. The heroine goes off on a physical quest to some place, achieves some goal (and maybe comes back again). So a map sort of fits in, showing you the journey that character takes.
Fantasy novels are also more likely to cross a large scale area, with more characters and more places that those characters could be. So a map at the front of these books can provide a bit of context and a world overview. “Here is where everything is taking place, guys, take a good look,” says the map. In this way maps (especially if a book becomes a long series) can often act as a bit of an aide-mémoire. “Oh yeah,” you think as you look at the map before starting chapter one. “I remember that place, that’s where thingygummy got to at the end of book five. And that walled city is where whatsherface is being held prisoner.”
So do you draw your story territory before you write? Or do you write and fit it to a map later? Do you do both these things as you go along? Or do you not bother to have a map at all?
Tim Paul, who works designing maps for books said, in an interview with Book Riot, that because maps often come before the text of a story, “a good map can […] visually help set the stage”. But you do also need to be careful, because maps can contain spoilers; places characters are due to go, treacherous paths they may need to take, ending with the annotation “Character 3 died here”.
My favourite map, and my favourite left field theory about a fictional world map, is the One Hundred Acre Wood map, and the idea that it is a map of your brain. Bear (ha!) with me here. Eeyore’s Gloomy Place is all your sad thoughts and memories, “where the woozle wasn’t” is half-forgotten things, and the sandy pit where Roo plays? That could be your fond childhood memories, or maybe just your safe space.
Do you like to have maps in books? Do you use maps to help you plot?
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