The town I grew up in today bears little resemblance to the place it was even five years ago. New subdivisions, new shopping centers, replacing stop lights at heavy traffic intersections with roundabouts—the changes that have occurred in those five years have radically altered the landscape to the point that my father, who was born in this place and died in 1990, would be completely lost.
Perhaps you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive. This battle was a pivotal point in World War II. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war. The battle also severely depleted Germany’s armored forces, which they were largely unable to replace.
You might think researching this battle will be easy because a great deal of information about this battle exists, documents and accounts from both sides of the war. The Ardennes region covers the province of Wallonia in eastern Belgium, northeast France, and Luxembourg, and many maps showing as it was in 1945 are still available in libraries and on the internet.
But, even though your book may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and the interview you had with him just before his death at the age of 94, you are writing a fantasy. This is because, 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.
The historian of this battle is fortunate in that many maps exist, showing the terrain of the Ardennes in 1945, and detailing the placement of troops. The generals of both sides left many documents detailing how the terrain they were forced to fight on affected their decisions. The maps are already drawn.
However, if you are writing a tale set in an alternate world, you must create those maps. The first map of my world of Neveyah series was scribbled on graph paper, and over time it evolved into a full color relief map of the world as it exists in my mind.
I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, just a way to keep my work straight. I use pencil and graph paper at this stage, because as the rough draft evolves, sometimes towns must be renamed. They may have to be moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges may have to be moved or reshaped so that forests and savannas will appear where they are supposed to be in the story.
Perhaps you think you don’t need a map. If your characters are traveling and you are writing about their travels, you probably should make a rudimentary map. 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.
What should go on a map? 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:
If your work is sci-fi, consider making a map of space station/ship. My forthcoming novel, Billy Ninefingers, is set in a wayside inn. I made a drawing of the floorplan for my purposes because this is the world in which the story takes place.
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.
Even though 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. Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”
Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, which means you must take the terrain into consideration.
Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along several winding rivers for the first half of his journey. He must backtrack as frequently as he goes forward; an effort 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.
When you look at the relief map of the Eynier Valley that is in the front of Huw the Bard, you can see it’s a long stretch of road. On foot, he could have made the trek 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 created the opportunities for tension in Huw’s story.
Fantasy readers like maps. If you are writing fantasy but feel your hand-drawn map isn’t good enough to include 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.
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 nonfiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. Maps, no matter how rudimentary are the foundation of worldbuilding in my writing process.
Credits and Attributions
German progress during the Battle of the Bulge. Scanned from map insert in The U.S. Army in World War II–The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge. This image is a work of a U.S. Army soldier or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.
Sample pencil sketch map, © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson for Life in the Realm of Fantasy
Map of Eynier Valley, reprinted from Huw the Bard, © 2014 Connie J. Jasperson, all rights reserved