Mapping Your Story


Peter Coleborn considers the value of maps.

Perhaps  you are writing a fantasy novel in which your characters travel across a fantastical realm. Or a science fiction story set on a strange planet in a far off galaxy. An early question that comes to your mind: do you need a map? The short answer is … yes! I would go further and say that you require a map, or a plan, for almost any book or story you tackle, no matter the genre. It is vital that you – the author of the piece – understand the topography of your world, you know which route your characters need to take when travelling from A to B and all places beyond.

I have read many stories in which the protagonist moves across vast landscapes, through difficult terrains, in unrealistic times, with the minimum of effort. Is it really possible for someone, for example, to track dozens of miles through unfamiliar, dense jungle, lumbered with a backpack, in a few short hours, even at night (unless s/he is a superman/woman, of course)? This contraction of activity/time is a common fault in some fantasy and SF adventures I’ve read.

But you are writing a tale set in the “real” world. Fair enough, you might think a map is not required. However, imagine taking your character from one part of a city to another. How far away is the terminus of his/her journey? How does s/he take this trip: by bus or Tube/tram/subway; in a car or taxi cab; on a bike or on Shank’s pony (that’s on foot)? And don’t forget the time of day – perhaps it’s Rush Hour. Or the weather — heavy rain or snow will extend journey times. Or imagine your hero travelling from Southampton to Sunderland, say. Perhaps he/she takes the train, in which case you have to consider the timetable (with reduced services on weekends).

All journeys take time.


Maybe your story is set in a huge house on a country estate, barely venturing outside. The questions to consider include: the number of storeys and rooms; their relationship to each other; the number of doors and windows; and so on. In this scenario, maybe the protagonist is a detective solving a crime; it is important to know exactly where everyone was and the distance and route they would need to take to do the dastardly deed (assuming it was one of them, of course).

I would emphatically say, yes, you do require a map or plan when writing real world dramas. If your characters travel huge distances or perform a variety of tasks in an unrealistic time, the verisimilitude of your story is lost.

Fortunately, you do not have to be a skilled cartographer. A sketch of your fantasy realm or faraway planet, or of the city or country manse is all you need, marked with rough routes and their distances. Luckily, if your story is set in the now, in your home town, ready-made maps are available online. If you’ve set your story in a country pile, why not go and visit a few, take some photos, learn the lie of the land, so to speak. Even if you have an exceptional memory for roads and rooms and the little details most of us forget, I still recommend using a map or plan (do you really have an eidetic memory?), especially when writing a novel (you may get away with it if writing a short story).

Does the map need to be included in your finished book? No, of course not. Just keep your maps and plans safe for future use in case you return to that locale. With a map your characters won’t dash about like the Flash to travel great distances or, heaven forbid, get lost.

Copyright (c) 2016 Peter Coleborn