News Flash: Artemis Invaded is now available for pre-order as an audiobook from Audible.com. 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.
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.