Are we there yet Papa Smurf? And if we aren’t there, when will we be there? (Assuming, of course, we know where there is.)
One of the problems I have in my fantasy world is knowing where I am, how I got there and where I am going next. Oh, I travel through the ether and have it all visualized perfectly, but somehow it’s less of a mystery to the reader if I can give them a general map of some sort.
When we write a fantasy story, we start out with an idea of what we want to write, but we are making the world up as we go along. This can be dicey unless you are really good at remembering what you said 3 months ago. Epic fantasy often involves sending the hero off on a quest – and this means he/she will journey far from home.
Knowing where they’re going, and when they’ll be there is crucial because readers notice inconsistencies; at least I do when reading other author’s works.
If you are writing epic fantasy, you want to have your geographical setting well-defined, because it is unlikely the hero will have a GPS to guide them. I draw maps as I am writing my first draft. By doing this while I am setting the original story down, I know I have originally declared Armat is the nearest town to the portal, in Neveyah. This is important because when I am really pounding out the words, I don’t always remember exactly what I wrote 22 chapters ago. Going back to make corrections is very tricky business, as it is hard to know for sure if you have caught all your small errors in regard to places and the distances between them.
Also, if your characters are going to be doing a lot of traveling it is good to know from the outset what sort of land they will be traveling in. What type of terrain are they traveling in? I first define my world with a world map, noting the shape of the continents. How large is your protagonist’s country? Does it have near neighbors?
By making a note of these things at the outset, you now have another opportunity to introduce tension into your story. Mountains, swamps, rivers and oceans are all important when you are adding local color to your background. Knowing their relationship to your character’s home and the effect they will have on his journey is essential. The physical environment affects the hero’s journey. Mountains are difficult to travel in, as are swamps and deserts; and these environments will greatly color the story.
Maps are a picture of the fantasy world which solidifies the scenery in the reader’s mind, giving a visual reference to the verbal descriptions with which we set the scene. A map doesn’t have to be too detailed, it is only a bare-bones reference for you as the writer, and possibly for the reader later.
Of all the books I have read, the books whose maps I have referred back to most are the Wheel of Time series, written by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. The map is not too detailed, but it does give you an idea of where Tear is in relation to Amadicia – both of which figure prominently in the travels of all the main characters, and it remains accurate through the entire series.
One series of books whose maps I have always wished were a bit more detailed is L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Recluce series. The books span several thousand years, and the cities and geography changes radically, but the maps are stubbornly stuck in the timeframe of the first book in the series, Magic of Recluce, which details the last years of the story! Oh, the agony! There is absolutely no detail on the map pertaining to the time frame of Scion of Cyador, one of my favorite books, and Lorn, the main character, travels all over Cyador!
This particular frustration is one which I hope to avoid in my own work, while not loading up the book with a bunch of maps no one will look at. It is a matter of finding the balance and learning from others’ mistakes. It’s all part of the learning curve – writing is a journey, and yes Conan, it’s okay to ask directions!