October 25, 2018
Why writers need maps for their narratives
by Michael Seidlinger
Creative writing is often “visualized” as a mixture of scrawling down notes, outlining plot points, and staring at a screen, laboring over every sentence. But we forget just how much of any writer’s creative process is visualizing, both internally and externally, the world, the setting, the situations a story’s characters inhabit and traverse. You could be writing a literary tome, an essay, or a poem and it’s still the same: we visualize the very words in the form of maps and blueprints.
Writers map out the geography of their stories. “For many writers, mapmaking is a practical endeavor that pulls them into their own work,” writes Sarah Laskow for Atlas Obscura. “A writer’s map hints at a fully imagined world.” Indeed, writers map out the geography of their stories as often as they labor over each paragraph. “The books I loved…came with maps and glossaries and timelines,” Michael Chabon told the AV Club, about how growing up wanting to be a writer, he thought inventing words was what you did. “Lord Of The Rings, Dune, The Chronicles Of Narnia … I imagined that’s what being a writer was: You invented a world, and you did it in a very detailed way, and you told stories that were set in that world.”
Indeed, seeing the internal vision in its own intricate geography is an essential part of the process. One of the most famous examples of this is the iconic map of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and who doesn’t remember sifting through the map as much as you did the book? It’s more like the act of illustrations and maps are more like literary devices, capable of accentuating the story as much as its structure and writing style.
Abi Elphinstone, author of The Dreamsnatcher books, says “I always draw my way into stories … I begin every story I write by drawing a map because it is only when my characters start moving from place to place that a plot unfolds.” Like Chabon, Eliphinstone takes ideas and turns them into something visual, something that might not be held as common practice for writers.
A recently released book, The Writer’s Map, further extrapolated upon the verve of authors seeking to geographically visualize their stories. The book contains countless maps writers have created to help bring their novels to life. Huw Lewis-Jones, the book’s editor, says “For some writers making a map is absolutely central to the craft of shaping and telling their tale.” Sometimes the words could be best saved for the page, the brainstorming and concocting of your creations instead made real via doodles, no matter how crude. At last readers are discovering just how fascinating these maps are for the expansion of their favorite stories.
Michael Seidlinger is the Library and Academic Marketing Manager at Melville House.