#amwriting: world building: maps and the mythology of history

The world Ortelius' Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

The world Ortelius’ Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

After years of work on the author’s part, regardless of whether the book is an encyclopedia, a contemporary thriller, a historical fiction, or even a travelogue with photographs, the world that the book details remains untouchable by our human hands. This is because that world only exists between those pages and in the mind’s eye.

The fundamental laws of physics bar us from going back and viewing or experiencing the reality of a historical event as a participant. We can, however, read about it, paint images of it, or make a film depicting what we believe happened during the event. This is where world building comes in.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

But wait, you say. I’m not writing fantasy. I’m writing a story about France, in 1945. I don’t have to build that world–it actually exists.

I’m sorry–the world of France in 1945 is long gone. It no longer exists, except as a memory.

Let’s assume you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge. But, even though it may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and  the interview you had with him, in reality, the world of this book exists only in three places:

  • it flows from the author’s mind
  • to the pages of the book
  • into the reader’s mind through the written word

Because we can only view history through the stained glass of time, we must accept that it assumes a mythical quality when we attempt to record it. Even a documentary movie that shows events filmed by the news camera may not be portrayed exactly as it was truly experienced. The facts are filtered through the photographer’s eye and the historian’s pen.

Your mind is the medium through which the idea for a novel or story is filtered and words are how it is made real. The key to making both fiction and non-fiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. It is worldbuilding that makes a stark accounting of incidents and conversations seem real to the person reading the book.

To build a world out of ideas and words, the author must know it well:

  • Create a stylesheet to avoid contradictions in your work. This is covered in my post, Stylesheets.
  • If your work is set in a contemporary setting, make use of Google Earth. This allows you to see a recent image of the place for yourself, even if you can’t afford to travel there.
  • Go to the internet and find maps of the place in the time your are writing about. If you are writing genre fantasy or speculative fiction of any sort, create a hand-drawn map for your own reference. We will discuss this below.
  • Research/or Create and these systems if they pertain to your work: Political, Social, Religious, and Magic. (We will discuss how to do this simply in my next post.)

If you are writing fantasy you need to know what the world looks like.

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, scribbled in pencil on graph paper, just as a way to keep my work straight. They begin looking like the one to the left of this paragraph, and evolve as the first draft of the story evolves.

Towns get renamed. They get moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges are moved, and forests and savannas appear where they are supposed to be. Over the course of writing the first draft, my world becomes real and the pencil sketch  map will become the digital art you see below.

In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve over the course of the novel–Maudy will become Maury (this actually happened) and distances will become too mushy even for me. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

Map of Neveyah, for RizAero

Map of Neveyah 2015 ©cjjasp

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps certain things will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location of on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Billy's Revenge Floor plan ground floorIf your work is in sci-fi, consider making a rudimentary star-chart, if space-travel is a part of your tale. For Sci-fi, you might want to know:

  • the name of the star or stars if the system is binary/trinary
  • number of planets, their names and positions
  • which planet the story takes place on
  • moons and asteroid belts that may be relevant to the tale
  • map of the area on the planet your story takes place or
  • map of space station/ship if the story takes place in space

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will  nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do. This is because their perception of a league may be three miles while yours might be one and a half. Despite the fact that a league has no finite length and is whatever the author decides it is, some readers feel their opinion is of such worth that they will never back down. They will become so annoyed by this that they will give your book a three-star review, simply because they disagree with the length of time your character took to travel a certain distance. 

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Map of Eynier Valley for 'Huw the Bard, ' ©cjjasp 2014

Map of Eynier Valley for ‘Huw the Bard, ‘ ©cjjasp 2014

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, but you have to take into consideration the terrain.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along a several winding rivers for the first half of  his journey. He has to backtrack as frequently as he goes forward in order to sneak around those who would kill him. It’s only safe for him to walk on the main road once he makes it to Maury, weeks after fleeing Ludwellyn.

It is a stretch of road that he could have done in two weeks if he had been able to stay on the main road, and if he hadn’t had to do so much backtracking. But that inability to make progress creates opportunities for tension.

Readers love to see maps in the front of books, but you don’t have to put yours there if you don’t like your own handiwork. This map can be only for your purposes, so you will know in a concrete way where every town and village is in relation to your story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you choose not to include your map in the finished product, consider hiring an artist to make your map from your notes. Because I am an artist, my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.

Every book, fiction or non-fiction, takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. It is our job as authors to take what is intangible and make it seem real to the reader who is experiencing the world and a moment in history through our writing.


Filed under Fantasy, writing

11 responses to “#amwriting: world building: maps and the mythology of history

  1. Stephen Swartz

    Absolutely thorough guide for beginning gods and goddesses!

    Of course, I’ve been there and done that. It seems to take about 10 years to fully develop a new world from scratch. For EPIC FANTASY *WITH DRAGONS I am terraforming the USA, so it should only take about six months of construction.


  2. I love this stuff . . . I can’t wait to be done with classes so I can start playing again. Sometimes, I think you’re my only link to creativity, Connie. (Unless you count my new-found skills in bullshitting my way through ethics class . . . ) Anyway, thank you for another excellent post. 🙂


  3. David P. Cantrell

    I think your point about the author being able to define distances such as leagues is true, but not necessarily wise. You may be the creator of the fantasy world but you loose all control as soon as the reader steps in. At that point, there is only one definition that matters, the reader’s. If the reader finds your distances unreasonable you might get a three-star review for inadequate world building despite the fact that you took great care to follow your map. .


    • @David–I agree with you–which is why I suggest keeping exact numbers out of it.


      • David P. Cantrell

        I think you miss my point. I think you’re safer using miles or meters than mushy numbers like league. Or, at least, the mushy number should be defined in some relatable way. Say the distance an average person can walk in an hour which is 3.1 miles according to the fount of knowledge.


  4. I agree with that in some contexts those measurements work well. And it is true that a healthy person walks around 3 1/2 miles in an hour over a good road. But terrain is important. A person walking along the edge of a lake, or through a bog covers less ground in an hour. So at that point saying a day’s travel is a better way than giving a finite measurement.


    • David P. Cantrell

      As you mentioned, the terrain makes a big difference, a day’s walk in Kansas would be difficult to match in the Rockies. The main point is to keep the reader from thinking about specific distances. If an author said, “It’s a two-day march.” is better to me than, “It’s twenty leagues.”