Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Cartography

Here’s an interesting post by Brian Staveley at tor.com: Cartography and its Discontents.

This caught my eye for two reasons:

1) I really like maps! The single thing I dislike about the Kindle reading experience is that you can’t see the maps properly! It’s SO annoying. I have been known to go “look inside” on Amazon just so I can look at a map properly, since it’s impossible to look at on the Kindle.

I have always liked maps in fantasy novels. I study them before I read the book, I flip back to them when I’m uncertain about the geography that’s being described in the story, and at the end I go back to the map and study it some more.

It’s especially nice if the map makes some sort of geographic sense, though I’m not super picky about it. After all, I was a bio major, not a geology major. Stick a mountain range in the wrong spot and I may not notice; or if I do notice, I’m willing to believe that Magic Built Those Mountains. (In my books, sometimes Magic Did Build Those Mountains.)

I usually draw a map early in the writing process and refer to it as I figure out how long it takes somebody on a fast horse to get from Point A to Point B, or somebody with an ox-cart, or whatever. Every now and then I wind up drawing a map rather late in the writing process, as happened for MOUNTAIN — there, I didn’t draw one until my editor asked for one. But that’s uncommon.

But I also noticed this post because Brian Staveley says:

2) After all, stories—real and imagined—play out in a preexisting world. The world does not exist to serve the stories.

And I was all like, What could he possibly mean? I assure you that a fantasy world does INDEED exist to serve the story. Taking too long to get from Point A to Point B? If it needs to take that long, you can totally re-draw the map. It’s your map! If you suddenly need an inland sea, draw one! If the inland sea gets in the way, erase it! Good lord, it’s like saying you can’t change the first chapter so everything has to be forced to work with the first draft of that chapter. I mean, what?

Having said that, I guess I sort of see? Because Staveley then goes on: I like working within the formal constraints of my own map when I write my books. I like looking at the terrain, the opportunities and dangers it presents, and then imagining my characters looking at that same map, trying to imagine what they would do, how they would move through that world.

Which, okay, if “working within the formal constraints of your own map” floats your boat.

But I bet someday Staveley finds himself erasing an inland sea because it turns out to just be too inconvenient to have it there. And that will indeed work, because the world most certainly exists to serve the story.

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5 Comments Cartography

  1. Mary

    Except for certain comic and metafictional purposes, revealing (implicitly or explicitly) in the story that the world exists for the purposes of the story — tends to be hard on the story.

  2. Craig

    Mary,
    Two orthogonal issues, surely? I’m having trouble coming up with any way that you *could* reveal that the world exists for purposes of this story in a map, except perhaps as a joke.

  3. Mary

    That’s the “implicitly”. You have to hide that it exists for that reason. If the geography is obviously contrived for story reasons, there are readers who will poke fun at it.

  4. Craig

    Mary, I’m willing to believe this happens, but I don’t recall ever seeing it. Can you give an example of contrived geography that got fan mockery?

  5. Elaine T

    Not Mary, but…
    I’ve seen rude comments about the mountains around Mordor by people who didn’t delve into the ‘everything in my father’s desk’ series of extras which show that those mountains were made on purpose by Sauron to protect his land.

    Can’t think of any other off hand. Discworld probably has done it, but … Discworld, ya know? I don’ t think it counts.

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