Maps, Maps, Maps! A Tool to Help Your Readers Visualize the “Where” of Your Story
I have always loved maps. In my office I have a whole drawer full of them from all over the U.S. and around the world—places where I’ve been, where I’ve lived, where I’d like to travel some day—and on the wall behind my desk is the classic color poster-size map of Narnia created by Pauline Baynes for C. S. Lewis, which was published by Penguin Books back in 1972.
Science Fiction and Fantasy writers have often employed maps to assist their readers in visualizing where a story is taking place. Robert Louis Stevenson, Ursula K. Le Guin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon—all these writers and more employed maps to help take their readers into the story. Are maps necessary? Not at all. But if you have ever run your finger from Hobbiton in The Shire along the Great East Road and across the Misty Mountains to the Mirkwood to see where Bilbo Baggins traveled, you will understand how much it adds to the story to be able to “see” how the characters get from point A to point B.
Maps are not just for fantasy, of course. Contemporary stories, too, will benefit from the use of maps. Using maps when writing fiction serves two main purposes: First, it helps readers visualize locations and character movement, and second, it helps writers remain consistent when telling a story. The latter is particularly important, so whether you provide a map for your readers or not, you, the writer, should always keep a map handy so you can refer to it often and thus avoid inconsistencies, because your readers will notice if your character turns left at the courthouse to get home in Chapter 1 but turns right at the courthouse in Chapter 6. Sketch a map for yourself, mark buildings, street names, traffic lights, etc., so when your character runs into town, you’ll know where she’s going and how she gets there.
As I mentioned above, I have a lot of contemporary maps in my drawer, and I will pull one out when necessary. Just yesterday, I needed to find an Amtrak station in South Carolina, and using my print United States Railroads map (MapLink, 1995) was a lot faster than wading through the Amtrak Website. This map also gives me a nationwide look at all rail lines, both passenger and freight, which can come in handy if I ever need a town that has a railroad crossing in it.
Most days when I’m writing, I simply use Google maps, because you can search on an actual address or named place and view it as either a street map or a satellite image, zooming in as close as necessary. I am currently in the middle of a detective mystery e-book series, which I set in Seattle (my Cat & Mac Mysteries). I put these stories in Seattle, because though I haven’t been there in twenty years, it is the only big city I spent any time in. If you know anything about Seattle, however, you know it has changed a lot in the past twenty years, so it’s good to have up-to-date information.
And this leads me to a third very good reason to use maps—at least online maps with satellite images. While I have not actually been to the Seattle waterfront in twenty years, I have been there virtually many times this past year while writing Cat & Mac. The coolest part about using Google maps is once you change from street view to satellite image, you can also click on the place you’re interested in, and like magic you are there on the street, walking around, making setting descriptions a breeze. This is how I learned you can no longer drive all the way down the Seattle waterfront on Alaskan Way, but not only do I now know how the Seattle waterfront works, I can describe it accurately. These street images are anywhere from one to five years old, but they are still a better bet than a twenty-year-old memory!
Most of us don’t have access to a library of print historical maps, so the Internet can once again come through for us thanks to the many, many educational institutions, government agencies, and historical societies who post images online today. I will talk more about historical resources later, but if you are writing a story that takes place in a particular place or time, do go online with your favorite browser and look for historical maps of the area about which you’re writing.
I haven’t used these maps so much for my own writing, which tends to be either contemporary or science fiction, but I did ghost write a series of Christian romances set on the Oregon Trail a few years ago for which various Oregon Trail historical societies provided a plethora of maps from various dates between 1836 and 1865. These maps helped me tremendously not only on the Oregon Trail, giving me the names and locations of forts and other landmarks, but they also helped me get my characters to the jump off point at Independence, Missouri, from various points east.
Next week, we’ll look at doing research when writing stories set in a culture not our own.