Mapping a Fictional Location

I recently started creating a map of the imaginary countries my children’s fantasy book is set in. I found I was spending too much time trying to work out which direction or area some action was taking place in, and then going back through my notes to see if I was contradicting a previous description. My maps needs work, but it has already helped to cement the details of the book’s world in my mind.

But this all led me to ponder the concept of the maps that are inevitably included in fantasy books. On one hand, I enjoy looking at the maps in the books I read to see where the action is happening. Once or twice, though, I’ve not noticed there is a map available. When I’ve found it later, I realise how completely unnecessary it’s been. The author’s description has often been skilful enough to guide me through their world, I haven’t become lost or confused to any extent that my imagination can’t fill in the blanks for me.

On other occasions, however, I’ve started the book by studying the map, then reading through and coming to a description of a journey. I start imagining the direction the characters are taking and from which angle they approach landmarks such as rivers or castles. And then I make the mistake – usually when a place name is mentioned – of flipping to the map to check where I am… and realise my imagination has placed the characters at completely the wrong location and direction.

Is this my fault, or is it the fault of the author whose description was not adequate enough to keep me from imagining the wrong directions? I was perfectly happy for the characters to be travelling in the direction they were until I looked at the map and became disoriented. Now this realisation breaks the flow and imagination of the story. At every step I find I have to check the map to make sure I have the characters travelling in the right direction. Eventually I make myself stop and just concentrate on the story.

So I’m not sure of the value of publishing a map with the book, but I am convinced that every author needs to create at least a basic sketch for herself to ensure she doesn't contradict something and land her characters in the middle of the ocean by accident.

It also doesn’t hurt to polish up your skills of description so that your readers can imagine the setting perfectly for themselves. After all, that’s what fiction is about – the joining of the author and reader’s imaginations. The more trust a writer places in the reader’s imagination, the more personal the readers can make the book, and the more they can identify with the story and find themselves lost in a good book.

This article was first published on BellaOnline in August 2006. © Elsa Neal

For more help on world-building and inventing fictional locations for fantasy and science fiction stories, try The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy by Tom Dullemond and Darin Park, or World Building : Science Fiction Writing by Stephen Gillett and Ben Bova