"If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong."—Gordon Livingston
Kari Donald, A4A Member
Back again for some more Continuing Education. According to an old saying, “A picture says a thousand words,” which is likely the reason for the popularity of “the world map” in most fantasy or speculative fiction novels. Today, we’ll be looking at why your map is important and how it can create continuity issues in your book.
Your map, should you choose to draw it, gives the reader a window into your world and provides a sense of situational awareness.
What types of physical features or landmarks make up the world? How close or far apart are the major cities? What are the relative sizes and locations of other kingdoms or countries? Where are the major obstacles your characters may face? These are only a few of the questions your map can help answer, and often much more easily than your narrative could.
In other words, your map can also tell a story; so the story of your map needs to match the story in your book. Remember, we want to make sure your novel is free of anachronisms, errors, or anything else that could distract your reader. Some readers will reference your map while they are reading, so if descriptions in the prose don’t match the image, you may lose credibility points. Potential sources of discrepancy could include the scaling, layout, and geography of the map.
Absolutely NOT! There are many styles of maps with cities and other features represented by images that are larger on the map than the space they would actually occupy if they were drawn to scale. However, you do want to make sure that the space between features reflects a realistic distance as described in your story.
For example, unless you are driving from downtown Los Angeles to Las Vegas (or something similar), it should not take two hours to travel the first quarter of the journey and then only three hours to travel the remaining distance. Anyone looking at a map of southern California can easily see how traffic congestion affects travel time.
When considering the scale of your map, it should not take your characters a week to travel halfway across the open realm and then just two more days to travel the other half without an explanation. Likewise, it should take your characters longer to travel that two inches through the mountain range than it does to cover the same distance when crossing the plains. Rough terrain, inclement weather, mode of transportation, distressed dudes needing help, or your world’s equivalent of the dreaded orange barrel complete with detour sign could all be factors affecting travel time. So long as either a feature on your map or the narrative in your story justifies any oddity while tracking the progress of your characters, it doesn’t need to be exact, just close enough to avoid distractions.
In a similar way, placement and area of other regions in your world need to be fairly accurate. You don’t want to plan on sending reinforcements to your southern border to prevent an incursion of rogue elves if they hail from the Kingdom of the Great White North. Readers may scratch their heads if the (so described) tiny and insignificant country of Iota Minor takes up half the map. This is a case where size matters.
Thanks for the reminder!
Geography is probably the most fundamental component of your map. It involves more than just physical features as it also dictates human elements such as culture, industry, and population centers. There are immutable elements of geography to account for when creating your world.
For instance, unless your world is like the top of a hoverboard and can rotate or tip at different angles, water will only travel in one direction—down hill. A river that starts in your northern mountains and flows to your southern sea may be drawn perfectly, following the contour of the land and providing a means of transportation. However, your heros will not be able to “float downstream” on this river as they journey north. Both “float” and “downstream” would be problematic in this scenario. “Float” would mean your vessel is drifting along with the flow of the river. Downstream is with the direction the river is flowing. Traveling north on this river would be going against the current (upstream, not downstream) and would preclude being able to float.
While magic can help you out of such situations, it should not be used as a crutch for poor planning or inadequate world building. There are lots of resources available to help with creating your map. Some even get incredibly detailed and look at things like prevailing winds and weather. For the important map basics, I suggest checking out the great blog post at Mythcreants.
Another reason geography is so important is that it can literally dictate the direction of your story. Once your map is in place, the features and layout may limit how events unfold in your book. This could be significant if you’re beginning a new series. Plan ahead to avoid writing yourself into a corner, either figuratively or physically.
Not at all. There are a couple of things you can do to avoid continuity issues with your map. You could take a minimalist or “need to know” approach. Only include the part of your world where the story actually takes place. You can add arrows pointing toward the edge of your map with labels for the names of neighboring lands. Give the reader enough information for a sense of direction as they follow your narrative while still giving you flexibility for future installments. Your map can expand as your series grows.
If you already have a good idea of the major events in your series, then go ahead and map your entire world. Just keep a copy of your map in front of you while writing and reference it. Checking your map as you write helps maintain consistent descriptions and accounts of travel time, scenery, resources, and any other things that can influence your plot. The sooner you catch anything that could be problematic, the less work it will take later to fix it.