My husband can testify I am a horrible road trip wing woman. Put a contemporary map in my hand, and I’ll turn it topsy-turvy before I can decipher anything of travel assistance. The road names, byways, mile markers, and intersections all blend into a flurry of ‘huh?’ God forbid he ask me where the nearest gas station or fast-food joint might be. My traditional response: “Get off the interstate and we’ll look around.” We had a tent revival halleluiah when we got our first GPS system. But this isn’t to say I don’t like maps. Quite the contrary. I’m obsessed with them. They tickle my brain to think hard—harder.
I love that you can take a road map, strip it of boundaries, concrete highways, interstates, and exit numbers; show me the topography of the land, the rivers and streams, mountain ranges and valleys, and suddenly, the world rises up off the page in vivid sensations: rocky, wet, and smelling of basin swamps and mountain air. It unspools —north, south, east, west. Each compass needle pointing to a story.
I’m particularly drawn to old maps. Visual atlases of how things were and are no more. The major road once connecting A to B is now gone. The major river once separating communities dried up fifty years back. Hilltops are laid low by our human wear and tear. Chunks of the earth are apportioned into territories/countries/states then divided further. Wars shred the landscape, bearing something new—not worse or better necessarily. Just changed.
And all the secret understanding is tucked into the mapmaker’s key (also called the ‘mapmaker’s legend’) at the bottom of the page, outside the plotted world; so if the journeyman is confused by the exact distance, surface, or body of water out of sight, the key will provide meaning. It’s a skill and an art: mapmaking.
Despite my dunderhead beginnings, I became deeply reverent of maps through the writing of my forthcoming novel, The Mapmaker’s Children. We, authors, are story cartographers. We navigate characters, plot courses of action, and direct readers in an expedition across unfamiliar terrains. We map our fictional worlds using the storyteller’s legend. Some writers might do this more formulaically with sticky notes, graphs, lists, and outlines; while others see it all from a bird’s eye view in their imagination. Sort of like the story mats and figurines I played with as a child. Little painted pathways and mini-obstacles along the way to save the world.
While the creative process of plotting might be similar, it transforms dramatically based on the contextual elements of each story. The way I wrote this book was far different from the way I wrote my last.
For The Mapmaker’s Children, I first outlined as “Sarah the author,” an external omnipresence looking down into the historical diagram. Once intimately familiar with the two protagonists, I began to draw out the story as the characters would’ve seen and experienced; free of presets and full of the colors, shapes, and inventive forms. I interposed the structured lines (facts) with rich illusion (fiction).
I made miscalculations along the way—had to erase whole narrative trajectories and reroute. I learned that it’s easy to become consumed by a corner, lost in the historical particulars of busy scenes and fretful over getting the course of a river just right. But then, rivers and cities change. They are fluid and transmuting, just like humanity, life, and history. And so I pulled back to view the whole: the narrative in its moment of time for these unique characters.
It was intense, magical process that I enjoyed with a similar spellbound experience I have when running my finger along the ink grooves on old charts. It’s the thrill of being a visual adventurer, being able to move across hundreds of thousands of miles with a gaze. It’s the same thrill we get as readers engrossed in a time and place removed from our own.
When I was very young, I used the floor of my bedroom as a giant storyboard. I’d make up elaborate plots for my toy figurines: Barbie finds an imprisoned My Little Pony trapped in GI Joe’s tower and she must Speak & Spell correctly to free her plastic, pink pal or lose her to the underworld of Garbage Pail Kids foreverrr! I’m sure all of you, writer friends, had similar dramatic playrooms… or at least, I’ll presume so here. Ahem.
Before catching the school bus each morning, I’d set all my characters in their designated positions so the course of actions could take place. Then I’d dream all day about the dastardly challenges they faced, the triumphant celebrations, the new friends they’d pulled from my toy chest to join their exploits, and so forth. (It was my favorite game to play during Math class.)
I’d rush home after school, disregarding my mom’s warm cookies, classmate’s playground invitations, sing-along cartoons—straight to my secret world. I wanted to see what my characters had been up to in the hours I was missing, always convinced there would be evidence of their adventure somewhere… if I looked at the map careful and close enough. I was never disappointed.
I may still be an unreliable navigator on road trips with my husband, but not because I’m stumped. I’m curious what lies off the demarcated streets, if only we were willing to get lost in the unknown. My husband would argue that defeats a map’s purpose, but I like to think of it as merely the legend of possibilities.