Maps: Limiting or Grounding?

News Flash: Artemis Invaded is now available for pre-order as an audiobook from  When the book is released on June 30th, it will be in your library and available for download.

And now, To Map or Not to Map…  a writerly question.

Roger Zelazny's Map of Amber

Roger Zelazny’s Map of Amber

As many of you know, over the last couple of Thursday Tangents, Alan Robson and I have been discussing street naming conventions – or rather, lack of conventions.  At one point, I mentioned the map that appeared in the Firekeeper novels.  This led to me being asked how much time I put into mapping out an area before beginning a story.

The answer is simple.  Very little.  Sometimes none at all.   The “map” I used when writing Through Wolf’s Eyes and Wolf’s Head, Wolf’s Heart was scribbled on the back of an old envelope.  Its main purpose was to make sure that I was consistent when referring to directions.  I guess it served because when my editor (Teresa Nielsen Hayden) approached me, requesting a map that could be included in the novel, she clearly assumed that I had one.

Happily, for me, Jim is a fine cartographer.  He drew the map (complete with contour elevations) that was adapted for the novel.

Nor am I the only writer to work this way.  Steve Brust was recently asked if the rumored maps that would be accompanying a forthcoming work would be based on his “real” maps.  Steve’s response was interesting:  “I have maps of some stuff that I use so that I only contradict myself on purpose. But I don’t like to let them out of the house.”

(I particularly like the bit about “contradicting myself on purpose”!)

Roger Zelazny had an elaborate poster-sized map of Amber printed, but this wasn’t because he felt he needed it in order to write the novels.  It was simply because it amused him to do so.  (He could be quite whimsical.  He also had pencils printed with something along the lines of “Property of Castle Amber Library.”)

When The Visual Guide to Castle Amber was commissioned by Bill Fawcett and Associates Inc., Roger spoke with the writers, artists, and cartographers.  A detailed map of the castle, including floorplans for many of the individual rooms, was included in the book.  Then, in the next novel, Roger arranged to have a very violent battle take place so that large portions of the castle’s interior would need to be rebuilt – freeing him from having to construct his stories according to a map.

On the other hand, I’ve known writers who lavish considerable attention on the maps of their fictional realms.  Every mountain range is detailed, usually with little triangles.  (I’ve lived in the midst of two different mountain ranges, and I’ve yet to see a mountain that looks like a triangle, especially up close.)  Every river is named (sometimes three or four times, especially if the mapmaker is a fan of Tolkien).  Major cities are indicated and minor towns…   Forests.  Oceans.

Advocates of maps say that charting out their terrain in advance of writing helps keep them grounded, to visualize the realities of the landscape.   However, what too many mapmakers forget – especially those born into this era of fast and easy transportation – is that distance is not just a matter of miles, it’s a matter of, well, as a certain hobbit put it, getting “there and back again.”

Especially if you’re writing a story set in a low tech environment, travel conditions matter as much as miles as measured.  Muddy roads will slow you down.  Paved roads will speed you up.  (There’s a reason the Romans built so many roads… )  How heavily encumbered you are is crucial.  Pack and riding animals don’t speed you up.  They may actually slow you down – but if weather conditions are good, they may increase how far you can go on a given day.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a gamer.  My favorite gaming involves dice, paper, and a group of compatible souls.  What I’ve learned from gaming – both from running numerous games and from being a player – is that when telling a story the macrocosm matters a lot less than the microcosm.  That is, the precise distance between you the nearest city matters a lot less than who is standing closest to you when trouble hits.

When writing, I’m much more likely to make a quick sketch of who is where when combat or some other conflict is an element.  I’m more likely to sketch a map of a small town or the interior of a building than I am of a continent.  Part of this has to do with the fact that I rarely write from an omniscient narrative point of view.  Instead, I take pleasure in seeing a scene close up and personal, just as my characters would.  Sometimes this means knowing where, for example, Brenda’s bedroom is in relation to Pearl’s.  Or who is sitting across from whom during an acrimonious debate.

There are times, however, when I agree that a detailed landscape map is very useful.  One of these is when writing in collaboration with someone else.  Especially for Treecat Wars, David Weber and I used maps to make sure that each of us were visualizing terrain elements in the same fashion.  You don’t know until you’ve attempted to write with someone else how relative words like “close” and “far,” or “just a short walk,” can be.

Another time when a map is crucial is when writing fiction set in an actual setting.  This applies whether you’re writing in a contemporary setting or hundreds or even thousands of years earlier.  Writers of contemporary fiction have some interesting tools available to them.  Resources like Google let a writer “see” a location as it is at a given moment.   This can be very useful and a lot faster than getting someone to run over there and take a photo for you.  Since “given moment” is just that – a moment – there are drawbacks, too.

Long before Google, I wrote a short story where I described a local museum, including the statues out front.  By the time the story was published, the statues had been moved.  The story still worked, thank goodness…   However, I had several local readers comment about this discrepancy.  Now, courtesy of the web, anyone can be the equivalent of a local reader.

Should this paralyze you?  Make you spend hours on researching your setting?  Honestly, I don’t think so.  As long as you don’t have rivers running uphill or major avenues running the wrong direction, readers will understand that transient details (which, in my case, included huge metal statues of dinosaurs) can change.

As I mentioned above, stories set in a historical context may also demand maps.  One of the first resources I go to when working on a story in a historical setting is Shepherd’s Historical Atlas.  While not perfect or all-inclusive, it is clear and useful – especially for making sure that the name you’re using for a given location or geographical feature is correct for the time period.  These maps can’t give you travel times between two points, but at least they can give you an idea of the miles involved and the terrain features.

So what about SF?  Why does mapmaking seem to be more associated with Fantasy than SF?  I think one reason is that while Fantasy is often set in some form of imaginary world, SF is likely to be set in some variation of reality as we know it.  Even if the story touches down on an alien planet, the contact is often restricted to one area (a starport city, for example).  If it isn’t, high tech transportation makes the question of whether a forest or river or even an ocean is in the way not a matter for consideration in the story.  Take a look, though…  The closer the story comes to creating a new world and exploring it in detail, the more likely it is that maps will show up!

So to map or not to map?  My answer would be map as much as you need to tell your story, but never make the mistake of thinking that the map is the story, nor that having a map available to the reader means you are freed from the responsibility of writing prose that makes your setting live and breathe.


10 Responses to “Maps: Limiting or Grounding?”

  1. Jas. Marshall Says:

    I’ve always been a fan of maps in F&SF. For me, the reader, there are two incredibly important aspects to maps in books.

    1. Don’t put in a crude line drawing of a fantasy world map unless that crude line drawing is made by a character in the book. If it looks like you didn’t put any effort into the map, people will start to wonder if you put any effort into the book. Better no map than a crude one.

    2. While contour lines and such are interesting, legibility in the tiny paperback-sized map is far more important than drawing each tree in a forest, or putting double coastlines on a map of an archipelago with dozens or hundreds of islands.

    Among my favorite maps:
    > Riddlemaster of Hed series – a bit hard to read all the details but incredibly useful to track the characters, who move around the various kingdoms a lot
    > The Humanx Commonwealth star map from Alan Dean Foster’s books – not “useful” so much as inspiring to see so many worlds
    > Thorin’s Map in the Hobbit (I have a handmade one of these, on parchment, drawn by an old college roommate. He thought he could make an even better one so he gave me that one.)

    I’ll not mention the books with horrible maps, to spare the authors any public disapproval.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I agree with Jas., that a complicated map doesn’t show up well in either a paperback or a Kindle paperwhite version. Still, I think it’s worth working from some sort of map, because terrain can play a huge role in how a world is laid out, especially if everyone is limited to muscle and wind-powered boats to move around. In high-tech SF, the terrain is less important, because high powered transportation lets you ignore terrain and travel time. Who cares how rugged the mountains are if you’ve got a helicopter?

    As for the importance of maps in low-tech settings, there’s a lovely chapter in James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (which is well worth reading if you can tolerate academic sociological writing) about travel distances in mountains. One thing he (and others) have pointed out is that, absent food along the way, humans can travel only a few hundred miles carrying their own food. My favorite calculation is how far a Mayan porter can carry a load of corn on his back before he eats all the corn. The answer was 333 miles, and it went down to around 100 miles if he was feeding his family. That’s actually less fuel efficient than a Concorde jet. Oxen and horses are in the same ballpark, which is why there’s an ancient Chinese proverb not to sell grain more than 500 li away, because the animals will have eaten all of it getting there.

    Now this may all be trivial, but Scott used travel distance for a really cool explanation about how dozens of wildly different “highland tribes” (the real situation is vastly more complicated, but that’s why he wrote the book) could exist only a few dozen miles from rice-growing states in Southeast Asia, and why those states kept falling apart. Southeast Asia is quite mountainous away from the big river valleys, and difficult terrain, coupled with the monsoon, has meant that those mountains have been a refuge for people (including the Hmong, Karen, and Kachin) who had fled slavers and oppressive states for at least 2,000 years (google “Zomia” if you want to know more). Because mountain travel is so difficult, especially in the rainy season, it’s far easier for people to run away successfully there than it is, say, in the very flat and fertile Ukraine and Poland. This is how topography turns into cultural diversity and history.

    Travel distance also defines the “food shed,” of any settlement. If a city depends only on food from the surrounding fields, and all that food is moved by muscle power (say 100 miles or less), it can only grow as big as those fields allow. The only way a city can escape this limit is by being on a river or better, on the coast. Old time river boats are about 4 times more efficient than walking, while seafaring boats are over 20 times as efficient. In the 17th Century, it took as long to get from London to Edinburgh by carriage as it did to get from London to South Africa by sea. Ancient Rome got as big as it was because it could draw food by boat from the entire Mediterranean, especially the huge farms in Egypt and North Africa. This is why maps matter, at least in the real world. In a fantasy, I guess it mostly matters if you’ve got a dragon to fly on or whether you’ve got to walk the whole way.

    • Jim Says:

      Archaeologists also pay attention to travel time in trying to determine such things as the range over which hunter-gatherers might forage per day, in defining communities that are spread out, and determining whether certain resources were immediately available to a community or entailed significant travel time. Terrain is often also factored into these calculations. Having done survey in the mountains, I can attest to how difficult it can be to get around!

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      “Who cares how rugged the mountains are if you’ve got a helicopter?”

      Funny how many people say this or something similar. You can bet your sweet bippy that whether or not you care, the pilot stuck with the job of getting you where you’re going in those mountains cares a great deal. Even if you don’t have a blaster screwed into her boyfriend’s ear, she’s going to want to make a good landing, at least, and would probably prefer to be able to fly out again. Ruggedness affects stability _of_ the ground, stability of the aircraft _on_ the ground, clearances as you _approach_ the ground, and most critically – and least predictably in a lot of cases – stability of air flow _over_ the ground. And that last can bite you even if you imagine that all you’re doing is flying over the mountains to someplace on the other side.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Yes! One of the approaches to Albuquerque’s airport comes in over the mountains, and you can really feel the difference in the air currents.

  3. Sean Says:

    This discussion is interesting to me since I make maps for a living. As such a good fantasy map is as dependent on scale and size as any map of earth. I prefer fantasy maps not too cluttered up with details, unless the details make sense to the story.

    It also echoes a recent blog I saw by Brian Staveley with a lot of the same discussion.

    I like to follow along with the movements of the questors if they are traveling long distances. Of less importance to me are maps of the fantasy town or village if all the action takes place in one spot.

    At the same time I get frustrated if a lot of the action involves traveling, but the relevant places are not shown on the map.

    And for all maps, I like a nice map that it its own page, rather than having the map placed in the bookend. A recent history book I read (checked out from the Library), had the map in the bookend. This map was not useful at all since the dust jacket, library’s bar codes, etc covered up over half the map.

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    I’ve noticed that phenomenon of maps in fantasy books. Back in the days of 25-cent paperbacks, Dell used to put “mapbacks” on back covers showing maps of the scene of the mystery or whatever action would take place in the book. So maps in books (at least on a small scale) date back to 1943.

  5. Chad Merkley Says:

    I like maps with books. Sometimes they add to the story, sometimes they don’t. My pet peeves regarding maps are 1) ignoring basic ecological principles in determining locations of habitats or biomes; and 2) having important locations in the story that are not on the map.

  6. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I think fantasy gets maps more because often you spend more time in the world. Somehow Sci-fi has a tendency to be more about the politics and characters than the land (space… whatever). That said, David Weber has maps for his Honor Harrington books, which are updated with each book, because those books immerse you so much it’s kind of nice to have some idea where places are in relation to each other (you can look at the map and see why Grayson is so strategically important).

    I think the censorious remains though. Most writers have a map of some kind, even if it’s a rough one in their heads. Fantasy needs maps more than space because for the most part, it’s hard to map out a galaxy of stars anyway. Still, as you said, map as needed only. If it’s detailed enough, add it to the book. The readers that will love it will have it, those that don’t care will skip right over it.

    I will say lately it’s become tradition almost for fantasy to have a map of this made-up world. So it’s worth noting many fantasy readers expect to have a map in the book. Mind you I suspect if it is a made-up world, you have one anyway so you know where things are. When it comes time for publication, someone can help you turn that napkin sketch into something a little more clean.

    Though we writers do find curious ways to write out our ideas don’t we? Any piece of paper near by is in danger. As for maps, heh, I got mine off a slice of a geode I saw at a local fair.

  7. janelindskold Says:

    One thing I’ve found fascinating about this discussion is that what a writer needs in a map and what a reader needs differs widely. This is certainly something to keep in mind…

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