“Let’s explore somewhere new, somewhere we’ve never been before,” he says as his fingers caress the curves and contours of topography depicted on a well-worn National Geographic map of the Chattahoochee & Sumter National Forests. Raven Cliffs, Warwoman Dell, Brasstown Bald…this map whispers to him of past explorations and adventures yet to come. This map tells a story more fascinating to him than any novel could ever hope to be.
Obviously, I prefer novels. This map doesn’t dazzle me with the same mesmerizing appeal that he feels, but I do respect its power. It holds the power of possibility.
Within an hour or two of pouring over this map, we could be paddling around Lake Tugaloo, or climbing the Appalachean Trail up to Cowrock Mountain, or biking along Dick’s Creek Falls. Sometimes, the possibilities feel endless…Blood Mountain, Black Rock Mountain, Mount Yonah, Cooper Creek or Anna Ruby Falls?
This week we ended up on a sparkling white sandy beach along the wild and scenic Chattooga River.
When I moved here, I never imagined there were so many breathtaking vistas, hidden waterfalls and scenic trails in this part of the world. But the names! I mean, who wants to visit Hog Pen Gap? Or Drip Nose Mountain? Anyone excited for a picnic up on Bee Bait Mountain? Is there any doubt you’re in the Land of Dixie when you’re dodging potholes on Sheep Wallow Road?
But what does all this talk of maps and place names have to do with writing? In a word, setting. To map, or not to map. That is the question.
When you open a fantasy novel set in a magical, mystical land, you expect to see a map. If this is your first visit to a new world, you might take a few moments to orient yourself within this strange land. Place names like “Dazzle Fruit Orchards” or “The Forbidden Zone” or “Fire Phoenix Cliffs” might even give you a little foreshadowing of the story to come. Usually it’s all a bunch of gobbledygook to me at first so I totally ignore the map until the story swings into high gear and I am forced to refer back to the map to understand something I’ve read.
I need to insert a reality check here. If I need to check a map in order to follow a story, especially in the first chapter, there’s a good chance I won’t be finishing the book. It all depends on the writing. If the story is compelling, entertaining, and oh so exciting in all the right ways, I am more than willing to do a little map questing to enhance the experience. If I am struggling to understand what the blazes is going on and find myself flipping back to the map too often, I’ll give up on the story.
I’ve met many aspiring fantasy authors. They all have maps of their fantasy worlds tucked into their notebooks and are usually more than happy to share all the love, creativity and painstaking detail that they’ve put into their world-building efforts. Some of those maps would put the greatest cartographers in history to shame. Many of those maps make me completely disinterested in the novel they are writing. (Shhhh…don’t tell! I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing their story.)
But what about other genres? Would you be surprised to find a map of Columbus, Ohio at the beginning of a contemporary romance novel? I know I would. And I don’t think it would entice me to read the book. (My apologies to the C-bus. I spent many happy years among the Buckeyes.) Anyone writing a novel set in a real town should probably own a map of the area, no matter how commonplace that town’s geography may be. That said, there’s usually no reason to share the map with the readers.
Sure, there are many examples where a map may enhance the novel reader’s experience: a historical novel where you need to show a city or country as it used to be; a crime novel map might show where the bodies were found; or any novel set in an exotic locale will need a map if the geography is key to understanding some aspect of the plot. I just started reading THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE, a contemporary YA mystery story set in Curacao. There’s a map of the island at the beginning of the book and, as far as I’m concerned, it needs to be there.
For my novel, I’ve created a fictional town called Newkirk, OH. It’s a mix of several small towns in Ohio that I know very well. When I started on this journey, I felt no need to create a map. That changed after the first draft. When an author creates a fictional town, I think it’s probably a good idea to get out the grid paper and colored pencils to create a map. Not a work of art. Just a quick depiction of where everything happens. I don’t think this exercise is necessary before you start writing. In fact, mapmaking could be another dangerous rabbit hole, an insidious form of procrastination that makes you feel like you are working on your novel when you’re really not. However, after the first draft, I think it’s time to sketch a map or two.
And don’t forget to pay attention to those place names. You can be sure there’s no Gooch Gulch or Frogtown Cove in Newkirk, OH.