Creative Writing Tools: Maps
Maps support a story. This doesn’t necessarily mean providing readers with a map of your world will make it better, but maps are a powerful tool for consistency and inspiration during the writing and revision process.
Fantasy writers often aspire to see their works in hard cover with a fold-out color map detailing the locations on the written page. That’s something wonderful to have, though that’s not what we’re addressing here.
Maps are tools for orientation. They exist to allow people to make a journey through a place they don’t know well, notifying them of important locations (like towns, cities, hotels, rest stops, etc.), and drawing their attention to places of interest (the World’s Largest Ball of Twine! Can we go?). All silliness aside, a map conveys information visually using context, symbols, keys, and references.
Many authors use maps to help maintain consistency in a story. Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, used real maps while writing her book. “And one of my concerns, when I was writing this novel, was making sure that just on a physical level, the way that I was writing about the girls traveling around the island of Barbados made sense. So I needed to have a map of Barbados that showed me where the south coast was, how they might travel from their rural community of Bird Hill into Bridge Town, which is the commercial heart of Barbados. And so I had to get those bus routes right, make sure that they were passing the right things on the right side of the bus when I was describing them, and maps really helped me do that.”
This is a real place, an actual location to walk through – or take a bus. We live in a physical world, and our memories are tied to these places. In his book, Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach describes an exercise he gives his students. He has them hand-draw a map of their home town, the street they grew up on, even a rudimentary map of their childhood home. These are meant to stimulate the writer’s memory for detail and the stories embedded in those locations.
Both the real maps used by Jackson and the hand-drawn maps taught by Roorbach demonstrate the power within this tool. Both induce the use of concrete detail. For Jackson, she can tell what her characters would see on their bus ride to the city, narrowed down by which side of the bus they sat on. The exercise in memory evokes powerful details, like that squeaky stair you could never avoid on your way upstairs, or the room next to yours that always smelled like stale hairspray (even after your sister had been gone a year).
Fantasy maps don’t operate quite that way. Instead, detail within the story tends to produce material for the map. If the story requires the characters to scale some mountains, the question would then be “where are the mountains?” and “Is there a pass through them?”
Geographical maps are a useful option for journey-oriented stories, but smaller-scale stories also benefit from maps as tools. A town or village requires predictable things: Food, water, shelter, sanitation, gathering places, governance, trading place, etc. Placing these on the map helps orient the characters in a more concrete world. Often this leads to more questions creating more detail. It may lead to new characters (who runs the drug store?), a unique scene (who thinks about the back kitchen of the café?), or a theme to breathe some life into the story (if the cemetery is in the center of town, how many visitors are there? Why?).
Draw some maps: real ones from your memory or fictional ones from your work in progress.