A Meditation on Maps

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Oh, maps, how I have a love-hate relationship with thee! When I was a teenager, I’d go straight to the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my local B.Dalton and look for books with maps. No map, no deal. Which meant that I read a lot of Fantasy, and very little science-fiction. When I wrote my first Fantasy short story, it was for an assignment in seventh grade for which we had to write a story that was at least six paragraphs long with at least one illustration. I wasn’t willing to display my lack of drawing talents to my teacher, so instead I drew a map and explained to her that all Fantasies had maps.

Of course, that was a gross exaggeration, but it was my expectation. Fantasy book = map at beginning. And that was the standard I held myself to for years. I had to have a map: I was writing Fantasy! My first map was poorly-drawn, but I kept it for probably seven years as I expanded that original story into one novel, then two, then a series, all of which I tossed out and then reinvented twice. I added in new land features and cities. Crossed out borders. Generally scribbled all over as I tried to force this static artifact into the ever-evolving landscape of my novels.

Eventually, I turned to others for help. I had my brother draw me a map. My college roommate. I tried my own hand at it a few more times. I thought about it a lot. And once I was in the Stonecoast MFA program, among other aspiring genre writers, I was able to bitch about it to people who actually understood.

Their response what not what I’d expected: “You know that you don’t need a map.” Eight words that rocked my world. I didn’t? But I was writing Fantasy!

Our professors agreed, and I conceded that I’d read plenty of amazing Fantasy that had no maps (even when a map would have been helpful). One of the best arguments I can remember against maps is that they set a certain expectation in the reader: that the places listed on the map will all be visited in the novel, or at least mentioned in some way. That makes perfect sense, especially for Fantasy series where the heroes and heroines will be traipsing all over the world. But it’s not always feasible. And we can’t all have an HBO Game of Thrones intro that zooms in just on the places we’ll visit in that episode (even they abandoned that pretty quickly).

When novels have maps, I do look at them before I start reading. I’ll flip between the chapter I’m reading and the map(s) as soon as a place-name is mentioned that I haven’t seen before—even if the location of that place is explained in the text. And if a major place-name is left off the map, I get grumpy about it. If you have two characters from two different countries who meet in a third and only one of the countries is shown on the map, then the map isn’t very helpful and I just wasted precious reading-on-my-commute time to study it.

I’m still slightly biased for novels that have maps, but I no longer make it one of my key criteria for picking a book to buy. What will I do for my own novel? That, I’m still on the fence about.