The Cartography of a Novel

In the last article, I mentioned that I do a lot of visual work when I prepare to write a novel, particularly maps. Ever since I was a child, I’ve loved maps both real and imagined. I was that crazy kid who, when some other bored student in class might be doodling a sports car, a dragon, or something unseemly, was instead sketching a map of the United States or perhaps Middle Earth… or maybe a tank, but that’s a different tale entirely.

Maps as an Authorial Tool
When it comes to writing a novel, I find maps to be critical to my creative process. They are a tool. However, since “Tears from Iron” occurs in a relatively small geographic space as compared with, say “Lord of the Rings”, “Wheel of Time”, or just about any epic fantasy, the role of the map as an aid to writing served a narrower purpose than it often does.

After all, the Syraestari Empire is a thin sliver of land along a coastal plain. With only nine cities, a skilled horseman could travel from Kinansath on the western edge to Nahirazith near the eastern border in less than five days. A courier changing horses could do it in one. The journey northward is even shorter. A mile from the city walls is enough to put the traveler inside the nearly boundless primordial forest that stretches all the way to the distant wall of ice.

Thus the purpose of the map was less to chart a journey as one would do in a travelogue novel and more a means of sustaining spatial awareness. I mean that more in a sense of time than distance. With some events occurring with the Scions in the depths of the wilderness, others centered at the capital Thusaeyanin, and still more at Ushtyl’s city of Nahirazith, I needed to understand how long it took to travel between them. To do this, I created a location to location chart as you often see in travel atlases (if one were to use an atlas in this day of Google Maps). I then created an travel speed estimator for couriers, skilled riders, normal riders, individuals on foot, and military units on the march. This was further varied by rates for travel by road, over the open plain, or in the wilderness.

You might ask, “Why pursue this madness?”

I couldn’t very well have someone deep in the forest one day, then at Nahirazith the next, and then reach Thusaeyanin the day after, all on foot. I liken this to the phases of the moon (which I also tracked). A waxing gibbous can’t be followed the next night by a new moon the next. It’d make no sense. These little details are critical to creating a plausible world that is internally consistent.

Maps for the Reader – an Aid or a Crutch
I’m always disappointed if a book doesn’t have a map when it could use one (which comprises almost all fantasy literature out there). I am at least as annoyed when a map is provided but fails to include the locations mentioned during the story. Yet just because I love maps doesn’t mean they are necessary. Quite the contrary.

This is what I mean by an aid versus a crutch. Maps serve as a ‘resource’ for readers who gain value from visualizing the fantastical world of the story, but a map should never be necessary for a reader to be able to follow a tale. I cannot emphasize this enough. If a novel requires a map to be comprehensible, it has failed. After all, a thousand words are worth a picture. A reader should never have to flip back to the map page to follow a story unless they want to. The critical elements of the setting should be fully covered in the text itself.

To use an analogy, if the book is a dessert, then the text of the novel is your favorite flavor of ice cream. All you need for a fantastic dessert is the ice cream. A map is the chocolate sauce poured on top. It is unnecessary, but makes the dessert (book) just a little bit better. My apologies if you don’t care for ice cream and chocolate, or even more tragically, if you’re allergic. They are both sources of joy in this life.