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Mapping our Stories

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Sat, July 01, 2017 18:14:48

This post was originally published on the Author Allsorts site on 30.06.17

When I first saw the suggested blog post idea of using maps in fiction writing, my initial thought was that I wasn’t the one to write it. After all, I don’t write the kind of epic fantasy that requires a map: I am no C.S. Lewis or JRR Tolkein.

In any case, in real life, I’m afraid I let the female side down when it comes to map-reading – I read them backwards, sideways and any which way that doesn’t make sense and gets me hopelessly lost.

But then I thought a bit harder about it. And I think that most writers of fiction do “map” as they write – even if they don’t produce a beautiful and plausible topography of their world.

In my case, I had in my mind a clear picture of the eleventh century leper hospital where my character Annie finds herself in The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014). After all, it was based on a real place: the long-lost hospital after which my village, Spittal in Berwick-upon-Tweed, gets its name. So I knew how close to the sea it was, roughly how big it would be and (based on other such places) how it would be laid out.

I was delighted to find this little plan by local historian Jim Walker and to be given permission to use it when I talk to schools about the book.

How does “mapping” help a writer then?

It’s amazing how often new writers forget about setting. They have a great concept for a story and they know (or should know!) the importance of fully rounded characters. But no story happens in a vacuum. I think it was Paul Magrs who said that if anyone wrote an experimental novel that was not set anywhere, readers would find themselves inventing their own setting in their minds. We want to be able to see where the action happens and imagine ourselves there.

And that’s why our story world maps have to somehow leap off the page. It’s not enough to describe things visually. That mountain range: what winds come off it? That patch of farmland: how does it smell? When the character’s in their top floor city centre apartment, what traffic can they hear?

I like to get new writers to know their fictional world really well. It’s always important, even if that world is a fantasy one: they need to know its rules, its language, its culture and any other detail that may or may not creep into the story.

You the writer are the explorer, the pioneer. So draw that map for those who’re following your journey! It doesn’t have to be a work of art. It’s just a start – and then you can add in all the extra information, until you have your own version of a Rough Guide to your own story world.

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