I’ve always loved maps. My earliest memories of map-reading are from family car-trips. My dad would reach into the (gigantic!) glove compartment of our ’68 Chevy Bel Air, and hand back the newest neatly folded roadmap of Michigan from his (gigantic!) pile of maps to my sister and me (hey, anything that quiets backseat rowdiness). He religiously picked up the AAA’s latest version from his insurance agent, whose office was a stone’s throw from his barbershop. (In his defense, those were days of growth for American infrastructure.)
My sister and I would pore over the map, pointing out the odd town names of the Mighty Mitten, and giggling over the absurd trips one could make between them: from Bellevue to Belleville (in our Bel Air!); Pontiac to Cadillac; Bad Axe to Hell; Podunk to Jugville; and even Colon to Climax (a very pleasant 30 minute ride, I swear).
Beyond the giggles, I found it all enthralling. I mean, let’s face it, Michigan has an alluring shape. Not to mention her 3,288 miles of shoreline (second only to Alaska). I remember studying the coasts, the islands, and the towns at the extreme tips of peninsulas—places like Northport, Mackinac, Copper Harbor, and Whitefish Point, and wondering how it would feel there—to be surrounded by nothing but water and forest. I’ve since been to most of the places I wondered about. And though a rare few failed to live up to the expectations of youth, most have exceeded them, and several have become favorite getaways.
My love of maps has undoubtedly contributed to my enduring love of my home state. But I can see that my love of maps also provided a natural lead-in to my love of reading.
And I’ve also become convinced that a line can be drawn from my love of maps to my current life as a writer. Allow me to diagram my case.
A Tolkien of My Affection
As some of you may know, I write epic fantasy, and cite Tolkien as a guiding star among the constellation of my inspirations. Before reading Tolkien, I’d been captivated by a middle-grade book by Dirk Gringhuis called The Young Voyageur. My parents bought it for me in the gift shop of the restored Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island (one of those intriguing map dots I mention above). The entire inside cover of the book is a map of the Great Lakes, marked with all of the French and British forts along the shores, and charting the protagonist Danny’s travels, covering hundreds of miles of shoreline and rivers… in a canoe!
Many of the places Danny found himself were places I had visited (thank you, history-buff parents). As I read I found myself referring to the map often. I also remember going to our family encyclopedias to look up French Voyageurs (thank you, “go-look-it-up-yourself, kid” parents). And I clearly recall finding an image of an early French map of the Great Lakes much like the one at the top of this post. I was predictably fascinated, trying to reconcile rivers and landmarks, marveling over how it might have been drawn at the time that it was. All of which put me right into Danny’s shoes.
I’m not sure how long it was after reading The Young Voyageur that I discovered Tolkien (thanks, Mr. Raymond! ), but not more than a couple of years. I remember stumbling upon the map at the front of The Hobbit before I started it, and loving the tiny trees of Mirkwood and the drawings of the Misty Mountains. Closer study revealed the tiny dragon drawn above the Lonely Mountain and the spiders embedded in the forest. Then there was that heavy line from top to bottom demarking, “The Edge of the Wild.” Whoa.
There was so much to be gleaned. Which only served to fuel my fervor for the story.
The whole process started over again with The Lord of the Rings boxed set, except this time I didn’t need to stumble upon the map. I immediately sought it out, and was delighted to find the map expanded to reveal Middle Earth in its glorious entirety. It was an enticing indication of how far the story would expand, and I endlessly dissected it, referring to it almost comically often as I read.
Undeniably Tolkien’s maps played a role in pointing me down the storytelling path.
Connecting the Dots
Though I’ve always loved them, lately maps have been even more on my mind than usual. It started with WU’s own Tom Bentley, who’d come across an excellent essay on books with maps by Sarah Laskow . Tom rightly surmised that I’d be of the map-geek persuasion, and kindly passed it along. A few days later a dear friend reached out to me with a question about my latest manuscript, which she is kindly beta-reading. The question was about the locations of two port cities. Her confusion was understandable, but it made me realize that a glance at a map would’ve easily answered it. But I hadn’t provided one.
Over a decade ago I read a piece by fantasist Joe Abercrombie  about why he hadn’t included a map for his debut, in which he says, “I want a reader to be nailed to the text… not constantly flipping back to the fly-leaf to check just how far Carleon is from Uffrith, or whatever. The characters often don’t know what’s going on. If they don’t have a conveniently accurate map to hand, why should the reader?”
Abercrombie’s piece contends that our stories should be compelling and self-explanatory without visual aids. Plus, not being trained cartographers (Joe and I and most other writers), our efforts can potentially open us to a level of scrutiny that’s often irrelevant to the story. At the time of reading it, I’d already tried my hand at mapmaking. Extensively. And in my less than stellar results I immediately saw his point. Besides, agents and editors to whom we submit will consider no such supplement.
I determined then that, in spite of my love of maps, the story would have to stand on its own. And I simply stopped drawing them.
Finding the Way Back to Maps
“One of life’s great treats, for a lover of books (especially fantasy books), is to open a cover to find a map secreted inside and filled with the details of a land about to be discovered. A writer’s map hints at a fully imagined world, and at the beginning of a book, it’s a promise. In the middle of a book, it’s a touchstone and a guide. And at the end, it’s a reminder of all the places the story has taken you.”—Sarah Laskow, from her essay, How Writers Map Their Imaginary Worlds
In the interest of full disclosure, there have been occasions when a reader has requested one, and I’ve sent along my old original map (redrawn by my talented brother-in-law from one of my crappy attempts). Also, full disclosure: Abercrombie’s recent books have maps, though I’m not sure if he changed his mind or was pressed to it by his readers or his publisher.
But generally speaking, I’ve chugged along through six manuscripts without the inclusion of maps. The world of my story has since expanded well beyond my old maps’ borders. Though my story-world is roughly based on the Black Sea and Aegean regions and the Danube River Valley, a real map would never suffice as a stand-in.
My story-world is fairly vast, with a wide variety of topography. There are smoky villages and teeming cities; rocky peaks and round, green mountains; thundering seas and calm blue lakes; vibrant young pine forests and aging oak woods. And yet most every square mile of this fictional realm has remained crystal clear to me. I often struggle to recall the names of minor characters and other details, but I have almost perfect recall of the place names, along with a mental image of each.
It was Laskow’s quote above that spurred me. I finally attempted a map of the entire area of my current story-world. The endeavor has awoken something deep and old inside of me. Something enduring. I am relearning something about myself. True, as a storyteller, maps can show you how to put things in context. They can help you keep your storyline straight and true, even if they’re never meant to be shown to readers.
But more than any of that, maps are an invitation to wonder, and an incitement to imagine.[As an aside: these days, with so many tools available online, there’s no excuse to avoid making maps, if only for your own use. I used a fantasy mapmaking website called Inkarnate . My attempt is far from complete, and the scale still feels off (reminding me of Abercrombie’s warning). But making it was easy and fun. I’ve put it on my website , if you’re curious.]
Whether you’re a map lover like me, or are just looking to be reawakened to wonder, I encourage you to give story mapmaking a try.
Charting a Course to Fiction
I’m certain that my work will have to continue to stand on its own without any visual aids. But I’m glad I found my way back to my love of maps.
I can more clearly see the path that brought me here. It was about more than a boy learning to read a map. It was about finding where I was and imagining where else I could go. Which is only a short trip to wondering what it might be like there. Then just a step to imagining what might happen next.
Isn’t that what fiction is—mentally conceptualizing the world through an invented scale, then conveying that concept via the written word? Placing yourself on the page, then visualizing the ability to move within it, and then finding your way to a new and unknown experience?
It certainly has been for me. I believe that my love of maps provided a model for what followed in the pages of my story beyond. And in the pages I continue to produce. Maps have provided the very genesis of my ability to immerse myself in story. I consider it a wonderful gift.
Which direction do you fall when it comes to book maps? Do you love maps? If so, can you draw a connection from that to your love of fiction?
Wishing a happy Thanksgiving to the Americans among you. I hope everyone safely finds their way to a blessed holiday among family and friends.