Thursday, January 29, 2009

Visualizing your setting...

Don't you just love opening up a book and discovering a map on the inside cover? This is especially exciting in the case of novels, when the prospect of finding anything visual is on the low side. Most fantasy novels have some sort of orientation map, an invaluable aide for the reader to navigate the often complex journeys the protagonist travels. But it's the other books, the contemporary novels, that offer a promise of slipping into a world that is familiar yet new at the same time.

More specifically, maps appear more in middle grade than Young Adult novels. A few of my favorites are:

The Callahan Cousins by Elizabeth Doyle Carey. The map of Eastport Harbor on Gull Island is charming and sets up this quintessential girls summer adventure story. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend their summer on Gull island with three of your best pals?

Bloomibility by Sharon Creech has a map. More like a whimsical piece of art. It sets the tone and setting but sadly, is the only illustrated piece in the book. Don't you wish there were more illustrations in middle grade?

Another one that I love is printed on the inside cover of The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls by Elise Primavera. The map is hard to read, even with a magnifying lens, but the impact is perfect.

A few books make it necessary to provide a map, some type of guidance system for the reader. The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau has two: One on the back jacket flap and another on the first two pages. Both are beautifully illustrated and both are helpful for following the story.

Perhaps the most classic map of all is The Sea of Knowledge Map in The Phantom Tollbooth by Norman Juster. Who wouldn't want to travel to the Foothills of Confusion or The Mountains of Ignorance?

One of my favorite books, Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, has a map, but it's a bit of a disappointment. It doesn't match the richness of the story or the text. Oh well, at least it makes some sense of the Eight Realms.

Of course, this post is not random. I've been visualizing my own story's map for quite some time now. The aerial view of Greenwood Academy; the equestrian center, the gymnastic and skating complex, the woods where the tragic accident occurred, the maze, etc. I thought I had it locked in my brain, but confusion from my fellow critique partners prompted a closer look.
How do the buildings piece together? How far apart are the complexes? What's the topography like? How are the dorm rooms separated?
I finally took some time the other day to draw something. I've attempted this before, but when logistics crashed with actual descriptions, I threw away the pencil and went back to the keyboard. No will notice, I said. But they did.
Here's what I came up with:
My map of Greenwood Academy

It's rough. And dry. Not a lot of exciting visual elements but it provides a much needed overview of my setting. I even added faculty housing. Never once thought about where the headmistress or Coach Jennings lived. Next task? Doing a detailed drawing of the main building. Addressing issues like how the dorms are connected, where the dining hall is, if a dining hall annex is needed and how far away is the library that connects to the secret passage?
I wish there were a drawing program out there that can could create this for you. Just plug in your needs and poof! A beautiful map of you fictional setting.
Of course, there is. They're called artists.


  1. You have been a busy bee! I just printed out the map and I'm keeping it by my chair for reference as I read more of the Greenwood Girls. I need a few exits marked on the main building and I think I'll be able to visualize everything.

    Great cartography, Miss P.


  2. Gumm Street Girls is one of my favorites! I happened upon it while browsing library aisles. And the maps were very helpful in visualizing the landscape.

  3. Maggie: Yes. You were the source of this particular inspiration! I think this exercise helped me considerably.Some things in the manuscript will change as a result. The main building layout is more difficult to picture and create. When I'm done, I'll pass it on to you!

    Kim: I'm a big fan of maps, as you can tell. I loved "Gumm Streets" illustrations as well.

  4. I don't know the story, but the map got me interested! What a great idea...I have a story I should do this for...

  5. Hi Sherrie,
    Yes, maps help. But yet, it still took me a long while to get the logistics sorted in my head. Good luck with trying one out!

  6. I never thought about that, but I do love maps. It sort of helps to get a visual before the whole book begins, and if it's set somewhere unusual, a map is a great way to orient the reader well before the first word is ever read. Cool idea!

  7. I think visual is the key word for me, Stacey. If I had my way, all books would have pictures!

  8. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your map! Very cool. And yes, give me a map at the beginning of the book and I'm hooked:) I love being grounded in a fantasy world, even more than chocolate! Great work, Miss P! Thanks so much for sharing....

  9. So funny, I'm reading the Gumm Street Girls right now (they're in Spudz).

    Great idea about the map, Patty. It really does put things in perspective when describing a scene, doesn't it? You've got a great story and your map helps me visualize it more.

    I've sketched out rough maps for my stories. And even though my drawing skills are rather elementary, it's helpful.

  10. Thanks, Laura! You know, I keep "visualizing" Wanda (remember her???) and her dual worlds. I hope you get back to that story someday soon.

    Vivian. I imagine PB's map would be as beautiful as her story!

  11. Like the blog, and specially like the map thread. If you like maps and journeys you might check out Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths, which takes the eponymous hero round Greece, visiting all the sites where the stories 'happened'. There's an interactive version at my website, I also blog with 20 UK YA authors at http:/ and for myself, on writing and other matters at Pull up a keyboard and come visit! Lucy

  12. Hi Lucy,
    Thanks for visiting and may I say, how much I love your name? I'm taking a little trip over to your website right my days off!

  13. Patty, I thought I was the only one who adored maps in books! I'm fascinated by the illustrations and how they support/embellish the story. Excellent post! So glad I found your writing site... I've been enjoying Deep Space Sparkle!


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