arcadia maps

A month of maps – Arcadia

Let’s wind up this month of maps by talking about failure.

First, my failure to calculate how many weekends there are in a month. Mea culpa.

Secondly, Arcadia – my unfinished novel of a small town dreamer adrift in a big city. I started writing this novel something like five years ago, and like most things I write I then proceeded very slowly through it in fits and starts. It was a tough write, due to its first-person narrator having a very specific voice and a mindset very different to my own; I had to really work hard to evoke the story in a way that felt compelling and honest to the protagonist. Even I found myself exhausted by it, and I put it to one side for a little while and wrote something else as a way of clearing my head; that turned out to be The Obituarist, and from there I segued (in the usual fits and starts) to Raven’s Blood, and Arcadia gathers electron dust in a corner of my hard drive, waiting to be dug out and started again.

I think that will happen. It’s a story worth telling. I hope that one day I have the stamina and the will to finish it.

Anyway, Arcadia is very much a story about place and about perceptions of place. So do I have a map for it? I sure do:


Writing about real places

As the map suggests, Arcadia is set in Melbourne, unlike all the makey-uppy places all my other stories and projects have explored. It’s possible to set a story someplace real but then just skate over the details, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but suppose you want to go deeper. How do you go about exploring a real place through prose? There’s no right or wrong answer – or rather, there are probably lots of right and wrong answers, and every writer works them out for themselves.

I think a better question is why you might choose to do that. What’s the benefit of embedding a story firmly within a real location? Verisimilitude is one obvious answer; using a real place gives you a wealth of maps, photos, history and more to work into your story and make it feel real. But are there others? For me, the attraction is depicting the immaterial character of the place, to show the themes and tone that a city/town embodies, the vibe that those who live there feel every day. Melbourne got under my skin as soon as I visited it; it’s a beautiful city that generates and supports art, culture and history, but it can also be an ugly place of violence, crime, poverty and worse. Those conflicting elements feel like genuine themes to me – as if the city was a fiction made manifest – so I set stories here not just to explore those themes but to explore the idea that a real place can have themes; that the bones of story might underpin the skin and flesh of the world.

Yes, that’s a bit wanky. Surely this comes as no surprise.

How characters engage with place

The flip side of talking about how writers engage with place is talking about how characters engage with it. Do they set out to explore their world or do they take it for granted? Do they think about the nature of their home and deliberately interact with its themes, or is it all done by accident? Do they have any interest in where they live, or where they’ll live in the future, or where they lived in the past? It’s okay if the answer is ‘no’; most of us get through every day with only the barest of nods to our local geography, and when stuff is going down in the plot then characters may have more important things to worry about. But on the other hand, there’s narrative potential in thinking about this.

A big part of the challenge of Arcadia was getting to grips with how my main character, Gwen, engaged with Melbourne. Raised in the country by a mother devoted to fantasy stories and her own rich internal fantasy life, Gwen thinks of Melbourne as a literal fantasyland – as Arcadia. Or more precisely, she wants to think of it that way; she wants to live in a fantasy world, rather than a world of disappointments and failures, and she tries throughout the novel (so far) to push as far into that world as her imagination will allow.

Similarly, maps matter to Gwen, if only because they matter in fantasy novels; they’re like artefacts intruding from the world of fiction into the real. When she gets her hands on a Melways street directory, she feels like it’s the key to all the stories, all the secrets of Neverland in one book – and when she reads it it’s with one eye in the Land of Dreams and one looking for a train station. It’s complicated to describe and harder to write, but it’s very much an attempt to create a story not just where place matters, but where what we think about geography matters. Like I said, I hope someday I can pull it off.

You don’t have to go to that extreme in your own work, but if you’re looking for a way to flesh out a character, thinking about how they think about their physical space is one way to go

Narrator navigation 101

You might also consider thinking about how they work out where they’re going in that space. Street directory? Ancient map? Google Maps? Apple Maps (poor fools)? Asking others for directions?

It’s a minor thing, but maybe think about how your characters get from A to B and how they determine where those letters are in the first place. Even if it never becomes plot-relevant – even if you never state it in the narrative – it can inform your portrayal of the character. And if you do give it some air – if you devote words to how they interact with their holy map around heretics, how they rely on their smartphone and get lost when it dies, how they steal a Melways from a service station despite it being out of what they thought was their moral nature – then you’ve got another lane of story to explore.

And with that, I’m going to stop talking about maps and place for a while. These essays have helped me crystallise some ideas that I’ve been contemplating for a while; I hope some of you found them useful too. If you did, please leave a comment to say so; if you didn’t, then just leave a comment and lie. Lying has merit too.

Next weekend I’ll be at GenreCon in Brisbane, attending workshops and panels, chairing a panel about hybrid genres, catching up with old friends and probably getting very drunk with Chuck Wendig. Say hi if you’re there and run into me! I’ll file a post-con report afterwards, if I can remember what went down and if any of the photos are SFW.

That Wendig is a sexy beast, after all.

games maps

A month of maps – New Jerusalem

Last week I talked about the map from my Exile Empire D&D game, confirming my nerd credentials and likely driving away anyone that saw my name in the GenreCon program and wanted to check out what the hell I do. Sorry, writing people – but I swear that this stuff is relevant. I swear. HONEST.

…and also I’m a giant nerd.

And this week I’m going to talk about another roleplaying game campaign, although this one hasn’t started yet – although that hasn’t stopped me from making an Obsidian Portal page for it, as discussed in my post about wiki writing last month. (Go back and read it if you like. It’s cool. I’ll wait.) Called Tales of New Jerusalem, it’s a World of Darkness game structured into small, self-contained arcs all set in the titular city, a place that’s been kicking around in my head for a while. New Jerusalem – a small, decaying city somewhere in the English-speaking world, and a place where all kinds of supernatural goings-on occur – is a place I want to define as a continuing setting, someplace with its own character and personality – just as I’ve tried to do with Crosswater and Port Virtue – and the campaign map is a big part of that.

This, then, is my map for the New Jerusalem game:


What the hell is that? That’s not a map!

That’s the board for Prince of the City, a Vampire: the Requiem board game. And sure it’s a map – look at all those locations! I’m not using the numbers around the edges, but all those moody, supernatural hexagons in the middle – hells yeah, that’s my city, along with a couple hundred photos of abandoned buildings and urban decay sitting in a subfolder.

Anything can be a map

What is a map anyway? Does it have to be physical or geographical? Does it have to be a two-dimensional image of a place? Does it have to show a territory? If you’re using a map as a writing aide or adjunct, then I don’t think so – it’s a way of navigating a narrative, before/during/after the writing process, and there are all kinds of ways of doing that. A game board is no better or worse than any other map, so long as I use it in ways that are actually effective – I can’t use this to work out a street route, but I can for defining and exploring the tonal connections between places or developing the character of locations.

If you’re trying to make a map for your work, be willing to go beyond the obvious. A wiki can work as a map, as can a directory full of video/audio files (with appropriate file names). You can stitch a map together from loose index cards with scenes and places on them, drawing connections and putting them in an order that makes sense to you. Hell, you can use the I-Ching or the Tarot as a thematic map, randomly or deliberately choosing images and ideas that click together in well-defined ways. I should know; I’ve done that for a couple of projects now, and it’s always a process that I find useful, albeit not one that might make much sense if spelled out for readers.

Maps are what you make them. What you make for yourself.

You don’t have to take the layout literally

Obvious this isn’t a 1-to-1 layout of the city – you can’t have a town where the south-east corner is all places of worship while all the people live in culturally divided blocks on the west side. And nor is the city centre a great grey space called Elysium where vampires hobnob and have tea parties without fear of retribution, although that would be pretty damn baller. Instead, this is more of a conceptual map, or even a tonal one – a way of naming and grouping kinds of places and locations to help with storytelling. It clumps place-types together as a reminder that a city will have these kinds of industrial locations, these kinds of business districts, and that exploring one might allow links to others.

Similarly, this map isn’t saying that the Cathedral District is just one big-arse church the size of a Melbourne suburb; it’s saying that the defining feature of that district is the Cathedral, whether physically (it’s really impressive), culturally (most people there are Catholic) or socially (the district is home to people who work and care about the operations of Christianity). When you use a conceptual shorthand, it’s a way of boiling things down to their essence – but you can always unboil (shut up, it’s a word now) things back to see the details that foam and set into the space. Lots of maps show the macro and let you drill down to the micro; some also encourage you to drill backwards from the small to the large. Which is pretty cool.

But you can if you want to

You know, then again… what if it was a 1-to-1 mapping? What kind of town do you have if the major synagogue is right next to a popular mosque? If the city morgue is just north of the local asylum? If the glamourous salons of the fashion circuit were just a few blocks from the piss-scented lights of the bus station?

Map can be story depictions or story generators, as we’ve discussed, and I for one get a lot of my story ideas from incongruity and the attempt to reconcile what seem to be conflicting concepts. A map like this is great for generating those kinds of ideas, for trying to make sense of the nonsensical and seeing what develops. Why is the financial sector next to the sewer district? Well, maybe stockbroking businesses moved into the area when prices were low and have now gentrified this cruddy, smelly part of town. The old plumbing unions are being pushed out by the almighty dollar, and families of sewer workers see their rents rising and jobs disappearing. Except that the old sewers push in under the financial district – and one guy with nothing to lose has found a map showing an underground route to the city’s biggest bank…

Sometimes there’s a power in taking things at face value – in saying ‘okay, let’s make it make sense’ and seeing what you can come up with. Just like a diphthong is a new sound caused by moving from one vowel sound to another (yeah, I’ve got a phonetics project on the go at my day job, you can tell), so a connection between two story elements can be its own unique story element – and it can be easier to make that connection when things are touching, even if only conceptually.

Connections and isolations

Tales of New Jerusalem is an anthology game – rather than one big long storyline, like a novel, it’s a collection of short 3-4 session games with different characters but set in the same place and continuity. One storyline might take place just at the university, or in Chinatown – or might cover two or three locations, leaving the rest of the city for another time. Because of this, it’s not enough to just give the city its own character – each district and sublocation needs its own personality too, enough to be more than just a backdrop.

The tools for developing place-character in gaming aren’t the same as those in prose writing, but there’s overlap, and both types of creation can learn from the other. One of the best resources for developing modern urban locations in horror gaming is Damnation City, a Vampire: the Requiem book that is probably the single best product put out for the line. It’s all about realising the tone and feel of a city, from the macro to the microscale, from the past to the present, and – most important of all – communicating that tone to players as their characters engage with the setting and create story. It’s a hell of a read, it’s one of my creative bibles for the New Jerusalem campaign, and if you’re writing horror prose then you could do a lot worse than to think about some of the tools within in.

This is the second-last instalment of September’s month of maps, which is extending into October because I have many things to talk about and a poor grasp of calendarisation.  Come back next weekend for the last of it, where I look at a disgracefully moribund project and remind everyone that I’m bad at meeting my own commitments. It’ll be fun! We’ll have hot dogs and talk about failure!

Also this week, you can find my Melbourne Fringe Festival reviews at Crikey, as I’ve been seeing comedy shows for their Laugh Track blog.

And in two weeks time, I head north for GenreCon! I’m as excited as hell! I’m almost certainly going to blog about it!

games maps

A month of maps – Exile Empire

Sorry for being a day late, folks – I spent yesterday playing D&D with my crew.

And hey, speaking of that, let’s make an incredible obvious segue into tonight’s post! Because rather than rough up another map for a story I’m writing / was writing / should be writing, I’d like to talk about the map I used for my D&D game – an urban Eberron campaign called Exile Empire. It’s been pottering along erratically for more than two years, and the city map I use has been the single biggest influence on the shape of the game. And I think the way I’ve used that map can inform not just gaming but storytelling in all forms.

So put aside your novels, slip on your d20-emblazoned boxer shorts and come check out this here map of Stormreach:


A few thoughts:

Oh, so pretty

Now that’s a proper map. It has streets and borders and funny-shaped buildings and everything. Who could help but get inspired by something like this, or this map of Freeport (partially shaped by yours truly) or any number of the gorgeous maps of Middle-Earth out there in the wilds?

There’s certainly value in an attractive map to the reader, but what value is there for the writer? How is this better than my godawful Word scribblings? Well, for one thing it’s actually interesting to look at, and anything that keeps you engaged in your work and your world is a good thing. Another strength is that it’s got genuine detail – you can see a lot more about the flow of movement and the change in local geography from this image, and that makes it easier to reflect in prose. And third, a good map does some of the work of evoking the setting for you. You’d have to read City of Stormreach to realise most of those buildings are overturned boats or hollowed-out giant stone heads, but this map still helps you communicate colour and shape, helps get across the feel of life in a seaside town that occasionally gets menaced by flying jellyfish from a dimension of madness.

Yes, that was a major campaign plotline. It was great.

Come selector 

The joy of a map with all the bits filled in – whether you did all the world building or you bought the city off the shelf – is seeing all the different places and locations spelled out for you, waiting to be used. You have the opportunity to select a story, rather than create one – or, if that’s too strong a statement, to create one using the building blocks that have already been assembled. Your world is rich in stories and potential stories; you can tease out and develop any one that you wish, leaving the rest for another time.

Is that a good way to write stories, though? Opinions will vary. I find it a difficult concept to consider – I want to write the story that explores my world and ideas, rather than just one of a variety of stories. Other writers will disagree, and want to benefit from the richness of a world that can bear multiple narratives. It’s certainly a powerful approach for writing short stories, especially if you’re sharing the sandbox with other writers – as in the old Thieves’ World series, which I also have some experience with. And it’s great for gaming, of course – which often is a lot like writing in a shared world anthology, with some co-writers at the table and others at the other end of whatever sourcebook you’re using.

The tyranny of the interesting bits

The thing about having all those engaging story elements pre-defined for you is that it can blind you to the power (or occasionally the necessity) of creating new elements in the moment. This is something I stumble into a lot in gaming – with so many toys to play with, why go to the trouble of making my own? Well, because those toys might have more direct relevance to the players, or their characters, or the themes I want to explore. And so it was with Stormreach. We had a lot of fun running around the Harbour District getting into fights, or setting fires to various taverns (okay, being in various taverns when they were set on fire), but it was when we went off the map to break a siege in the jungles that the campaign took a turn and several characters went through meaningful changes.

If you’ve put the work into creating a map, or a setting, or a court full of intrigues all before you start writing, that’s great – but don’t feel limited by the things you’ve already done. There’s always room to add a new location, introduce a new character, complicate or eliminate or double down on an existing relationship – and the stuff you make in the moment is at least as interesting to your readers/players as the stuff that was there all along. Maybe even more so.

Movement is story

When the Order of the Emerald Claw attacked Master Aedan in the Temple District, his student Slaine was in Cross, and it wasn’t until she’d come through the Marketplace that she came home to find him bleeding out. When the Storm Hammers opened a dimensional portal in the undercity, the heroes had to track down an entrance in the old Rubble Warren in Greystone. And when a giant fell taint bled lumps of diseased telepathy into the river, the adventurers had to race through a city beset by sickness and madness to hire a skiff, sail upriver and fight the horrible squishy thing.

A defined map has both locations and information about where those locations are in relationship to each other. The best stories are never set entirely within one place – they always involve movement from A to B, and that movement goes through C. The joy of a defined map is the chance to explore the transition between locations as well as the locations themselves – because that movement lets you see the world around the characters and locations, the effects events have on those interstitial spaces, and how they’re changed by the actions of the characters. It’s in that travel from one place to another that story happens and stakes raise for when you reach your destination.

Spin it round

What’s the northernmost location shown on this map? The district of Whitewash at the top? Nope – it’s the Foundry, location number 1 off to the right. That’s because the compass rose down in the bottom corner has north off to the right, while up the page is west.

For whatever cultural or neurological reasons, we always assume the top bit of the map is north, and it’s a disorienting wrench to re-align north to the left or right, and nearly impossible to spin it 180 to the bottom. If you want to disorient your readers, turn your map 90 degrees before it hits the page so that they’re always uncertain about how to translate the words ‘and then they walked six blocks north’ into something visual. However, if you prefer not to give your readers conceptual vertigo, skip the silly buggers and just make north the bit that goes up. It’s easier.

Hope y’all found that excursion into a different kind of map (and purpose for a map) interesting.

‘cos we’re doing it again in a few days, except completely differently.

Comments welcome, as always.

maps obituarist

Month of maps – The Obituarist

Having put up my cruddy Word-drawn map of Crosswater last week to deafening acclaim – I must be deaf as I didn’t hear anything – I’d like to follow up with my map of Port Virtue, the seedy seaside city that is the setting of The Obituarist. It’s equally cruddy, but I think it shows how different stories have very different priorities, and how place can work very differently.

And now, through the magic of <insert text box>, I give you:

Port Virtue

What the hell kind of map is this? I mean, last week’s attempt was a bit rubbish, but it least it had some proper features like rivers. This is just some words and an arrow pointing north – might as well be a mind map!

Well, yes – and it nearly was a mind map, but that started getting messy.

Tone first, geography second

When I looked back through The Obituarist to make this map – because I’d never drawn or envisioned one while writing it – I discovered that there was only one statement about a physical direction in the entire book. (Someone says ‘west side’ towards the end of the novella.) And yet Port Virtue is clear in my head – a run-down faded city of harsh lights, broken concrete and crappy nightlife – and readers have said to me that it’s been vivid for them as well. But all of that comes out through tone and from individual scenes, rather than how those scenes and places sit alongside each other.

Not every story needs a map, and not every map needs to show physical things. This diagram shows me tone more than anything else – there’s the boring part of town, a shitty part, a wet part where people probably get drowned, a relatively nice parts my stories will probably never visit and so on. Even though I have a rough direction marker, thanks to that one bit of dialogue, the important thing is seeing that if Kendall goes back to the crappy part (and he will) then it gets even crappy further out; if he stays at home he’ll get bored; if he goes into the middle of town there are cops on his arse again. That’s what I need and that’s what I think my readers want, more than a sense that Kendall can see the Brick House from his balcony.

1208 - Obituarist-ol - newPiecing things together

As I said, I made this map after the fact (specifically I made it last night), and most of that work was trying to work out where various locations fit into my… let’s call it a ‘tonal gradient’ because it makes me sound clever. That’s an interesting experience – like trying to puzzle out directions that I’d forgotten I’d written, possibly due to drunkenness at some point.

It’s like – okay, D-Block’s hideout is on the waterfront, that’s obvious. But the Brick House is in the shitty industrial part of town, and that turned out to be on the other side of the city. The biker lab must also be over there, because it’s crappy as fuck – but it’s in an old housing district, so it’s probably near a residential area, and probably the boring part rather than the nicer part. Where should I put the storage place? Waterfront sounds good.

It’s part detective work, part jigsaw puzzle, part throwing shit to see where it sticks – and it’s kind of fun. If your story is done and you never created a map for it, there can be value in going back to it and working out where everything goes, whether physically or conceptually. It can help you see connections that hadn’t occurred to you, suggest ideas for further events and even encourage dreams where the old Clint Eastwood biker guy has brunch with Benny Boorns.

Um. Yeah.

No districts, no place names, no fiddle-dee-dee

The Obituarist is around 22 000 words long. I ain’t got time to be naming things! I can’t indulge my little fetish for portmanteaus; place names chew up wordcount every time they appear. Ditto descriptions of places as discrete units, or attempts to flesh out the context of the snippets of space I have for setting scenes. No, no time for that; just tone and purpose, that’s all there’s room for.

You write to fill the space you want; you edit down to fill the space you need. And if something isn’t actually useful in the story – a description, a place name, a WELCOME TO SHITSVILLE ACRES PLEASE COME AGAIN street sign – then cut that crap out. Or don’t write it in the first place.

A shame. Shitsville Acres is really quite lovely in the spring.

Room to expand

Like most modern cities, I figure Port Virtue doesn’t have a wall around it or a distinct start and finish. One moment you’re driving down a rutted highway, then you pass some crappy houses and burned-out trucks, and a couple of minutes later you’re being carjacked in a traffic jam and wishing you’d gone to Zurich for your holiday. Cities are smears on the landscape, and a lack of a formal boundary helps give that sense of reality to your place.

It also gives room to add more detail as ideas and stories demand. The cliffs and the Jericho estate come from the semi-sequel short story ‘Inbox Zero’ – completely free to download, if you haven’t already – and I figure that the Jericho Bible printing factory is somewhere along the waterfront. And out further west, we see a few hints of what’s coming in The Obituarist II: Electric Boogaloo, which I’ll be working on as soon as I finish with Raven’s Blood. Who is Old Man Northanger and why does he have a zoo and a scrap yard out in the boondocks? You’ll find out soon enough – and learn the terrible secret of what lurks in the boring part of town!

Well, maybe. Still working that part out. And it’s probably not that terrible a secret. Not unless the next story involves Scooby Doo.

…I’m not ruling that out.

Two different cities, two different maps, two (or more) different purposes for those maps. I think that’s kind of cool.

I hope some of y’all agree. Speak up if you do. Or don’t.


Time after (map) time

Just a quick mid-weeker tonight, folks, but I want to throw this out there.

I’m basing a lot of Raven’s Blood’s aesthetics on Elizabethan England, albeit changed in a lot of major and minor ways. The native Westrons may have dark, almost Hispanic complexions, and the clothing may be sensible rather than risible – I’ve been reading about Elizabethan fashion and it was balls-out cray-cray – but still, Crosswater is meant to resemble Tudor London in a bunch of ways that (hopefully) make the story interesting and the setting evocative.

But here’s the thing – Elizabethan London was fucking tiny.

Here’s a rough map of what was considered London (i.e. the important bit that was then surrounded by farms and suburbs n’ crap) in Shakespeare’s day:


According to that scale that’s like, what, two miles across? Two and a half? And maybe one-and-a-half miles high. Westminster Abbey on one side, the Tower of London on the other, the Thames up the middle – that’s your city.

Now here’s a modern tourist’s map of London:

Twice the height, twice the breadth, four times the area, but we can still see where Shakespeare’s London fit in that lower right quadrant, still make out the same landmarks. They haven’t moved; it’s just that what we consider ‘the city’ has expanded hugely in the last few centuries.

So what’s the point? Well, a couple spring to mind:

– Shakespeare’s London was no more than maybe 3-4 square miles of land, but in there was crammed enough trade, intrigue, culture, religious tension and frenzied shagging to propel more than four hundred years of storytelling. There’s always an urge to give stories breathing room, to send your history back a thousand years rather than twenty or throw the dice out over a continent rather than a countryside, but you don’t need a million hectares or years to anchor a story; what you need is a concentration of people, of culture, of conflict. And you can find those in a backyard if you look hard enough.

– Cities expand over the ages, by and large, but history doesn’t flow as fast as real estate figures. There are stories about Kensington Gardens and Regent’s Park and Belgravia, but do they have the same resonance, the same hook for readers as stories about London Bridge and the Tower of London? Well, maybe they do for the folks who live around there, I don’t know; local stories matter to local people and so they should. But your readers are always tourists, never residents, and you’ll have a better chance of drawing them into your story if time and space are co-conspirators; if your fascinating place has a fascinating history to go with it, even if it’s a history that never gets spelled out.

– Speaking as an Australian, what the fuck London is tiny you could drop that shit in Brisbane and never find it again. Getting my head around the sheer freaking density of Britain, or indeed Europe in general, or indeed anywhere that isn’t an unpopulated urban wasteland punctuated by the occasional bottle shop and hipster mandolin collective just makes my head swim. I’m going to Europe at the end of the year, and I fully expect to freak the fuck out due to the sheer density of history and armpits.

Maps, people. They only tell part of the story. But it’s a crazy goddamn part.

ghost raven maps worldbuilding

Month of maps – Raven’s Blood

What I wanted to do today was mostly drink bourbon in bed with the covers over my head and maybe keep doing that for the next three years.

But no, we must soldier on; there are new battles to fight and more work to be done. And I don’t have any bourbon in the house anyway.

Instead, let’s talk about maps some more.

I promised I’d spend the month creating and then discussing maps for some of the projects I’ve been working on. So here, in all its glory, is my map of Crosswater, the city that is the setting of Raven’s Blood:

Crosswater map

This is obviously a bit bare-bones, but it shows the core information about Crosswater’s geography – that it’s a town built around two rivers (the Dawn and the Dusk) that come together to let out into a harbour.

So what discussion points does this suggest?

Pretty and Useful Ain’t the Same Thing

If you’re looking at this map and thinking it looks like something I slapped together in MS Word in like twenty minutes, well, you’re perceptive. There’s no way this is going into the front pages of the book once it is snapped by Random Penguin and they print it to universal acclaim, or even if I end up publishing it myself and paying someone fifty bucks to do the map in Dundjinni or something.

But so what? This is a working document, not a finished product. Maps are tools, first and foremost, and this map does the job of presenting the relationship between places that I need it to do. If anything this is still more developed than it needs to be (note the sumptuous use of colour, after all); I could get just as much use out of a diagram, a mind map or some scribble in a notebook.

If you’re sitting down to create a map for your project, don’t feel paralysed by any feeling that it requires visual polish. That comes at the end, when other people look at your stuff. When you make stuff to use, just do what works for you – anything more will distract you and is likely to need revising once you’re finished anyway.

Filling in Details as We Go

What are the names of the three untitled districts? Don’t know. What are the areas around the city? Don’t know. Are there additional districts and locations? How many ships are anchored at Dockside? Is there a wall to the north of the Commons? Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know (but probably). Bottom-up design is all about doing what’s required and no more, and this map shows everything that the narrative has demanded so far. Once I finish the book I’ll come in and fill in some of these blanks, because I’ll want to present a finished map, but there’s no need for that right now.

This map is also not to scale, because scale is also not something I really need yet. I know it takes about an hour to walk at night from the Arrowsmith manor to Kember’s house, because Kember does that, and that gives me some idea of Crosswater’s size. That idea will probably morph at the end; I think the town is a bit wider that this map implies. I’ll work that out once I get there.

If you’re more inclined to a top-down approach, this probably sounds like a terrible approach, in which case you should do what works for you. But if you prefer to work through the core of the story first and then fill in the rest, a map like this – bare-bones but with the important bits in the right place – can help you develop the flow of that story, rather than dictating it.

Fantasy Languages Need Not Apply

As you can see, Crosswater is lacking in polysyllabic and apostrophe-laden fantasy words, or even just words that aren’t in English. Part of this is a personal aesthetic; I tend to like portmanteaus, compound terms and colloquialisms much more than stuff in made-up languages. I can’t keep those words in my head when reading and can’t develop them in a logical sense when I write; better to work with word-components that actually engage me.

The other reason is thematic. Crosswater and the Westron Lands are meant to evoke Elizabethan London and England to some extent, although not exclusively. Using English words for place names helps with that, as so many locations of the period follow that model – and those that don’t are often derived from Roman or Celtic terms that were originally compound terms. (Manchester was basically called ‘breast-like hill’, at least according to Wikipedia.)

Not all of these words are set in stone. ‘Courtpark’ isn’t going to last, because it sounds like something you find in a basketball game. My original plan was ‘Kingspark’ but that didn’t click either; it doesn’t pull apart cleanly into ‘King’s Park’ rather than ‘King Spark’. And ‘Dockside’ is a bit bland; I need to bring something in to spice that up. Time to pull out my reference books – the Vulgar Tongue, the amazing Macquarie Thesaurus and Liza Picard’s Elizabeth’s London – and see what grabs my eye.

Bird’s Eye versus Boots on the Ground

This map is a useful tool in a lot of ways, especially as it helps me work out where all the various locations fit alongside each other.

But the map is not the territory, as they say, and this map – any map – doesn’t tell you or me what it’s like to live in Crosswater. It doesn’t say what the rivers smell like, how the food tastes, why the border between Greywharf and Wright’s Parish is erupting in violence; it doesn’t tell a story. Well, it doesn’t tell the story I want; maps can tell stories, but they are stories of grand scope and change, less stories about fist-fights with bronze cyborgs on collapsed bridges.

Evoking a location is something that happens in the text itself, rather than the map at the start. (Or at least it does if I do my job right.) That’s where the colour and shape comes out, where sights and sounds and smells enter play. But having said that, the birds-eye map still helps, because it shows you where that detail might be found. If I want to describe the feel of Dockside, I can see from the map that I need to reflect the presence of the harbour – the smell of the sea, the churn of the Dusk as it emerges into a nest of wharves, the warning bells as Warrant ferrymen take prisoners out to the jail of the Rock. Without a map to remind me, I might lose track of that – and that’s why my bodgy Word diagram is such a valuable tool.

In closing, Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous may have been awful trash, but it gave us some cool CGI visuals for Elizabethan London – so if you’re wondering what Crosswater looks like a bit lower to the rooftops, take the image below and add approximately 30% more masked superheroics and villainy. And some parkour. And maybe a giant snake. That’s pretty close.


Turn the map around

No time tonight for a proper mid-week post; there’s books to write, yard sale fodder to accumulate and pre-election stressing and disbelief to be had.

But I do want to ask one question for anyone/everyone reading:

What do maps mean to you?

Are they interesting? Tedious? Exotic? Mundane? Vital? Unnecessary ‘cos you have a smartphone? A glimpse of another place? A way to find a parking spot?

Over the next few weeks I’ll be talking a lot about maps, but before I do, have your say by leaving a comment. Get in early before Tony Abbott takes our posting privileges away.

maps worldbuilding

A month of maps

I kind of hate maps.

This is another one of those things that make me a terrible nerd, like saying I’ve never watched any of the Star Trek TV shows or simply don’t care that much that Ben Affleck’s playing Batman in the next DC movie. Maps are one of those cornerstones of fantasy fiction, worlds sketched out in the opening pages of a book before a story starts, and I think most readers see them as a call to adventure, a sign that discoveries are ahead. But for me it’s always been the opposite; they make me less interested in a story, not more interested.

The late, great and sorely missed Diana Wynne Jones pretty much summed up my issue with maps in her wonderful The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:

Examine the Map. It will show most of a continent (and sometimes part of another) with a large number of BAYS, OFFSHORE ISLANDS, an INLAND SEA or so and a sprinkle of TOWNS. There will be scribbly snakes that are probably RIVERS, and names made of CAPITAL LETTERS in curved lines that are not quite upside down. By bending your neck sideways you will be able to see that they say things like “Ca’ea Purt’wydyn” and “Om Ce’falos.” These may be names of COUNTRIES, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell.

These empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly labeled “Megamort Hills,” “Death Mountains, ”Hurt Range” and such, with a whole line of molehills near the top called “Great Northern Barrier.” Above this will be various warnings of danger. The rest of the Map’s space will be sparingly devoted to little tiny feathers called “Wretched Wood” and “Forest of Doom,” except for one space that appears to be growing minute hairs. This will be tersely labeled “Marshes.”

This is mostly it.

No, wait. If you are lucky, the Map will carry an arrow or compass-heading somewhere in the bit labeled “Outer Ocean” and this will show you which way up to hold it. But you will look in vain for INNS, reststops, or VILLAGES, or even ROADS. No – wait another minute – on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labeled “Old Trade Road – Disused” and “Imperial Way – Mostly Long Gone.” Some of these routes appear to lead (or have lead) to small edifices enticingly titled “Ruin,” “Tower of Sorcery,” or “Dark Citadel,” but there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.

In short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get. And, be warned. If you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.

That last line in particular is what gets me – because what’s the point of putting something on the map if the story doesn’t examine that location? I look at a detailed map in a novel and all the suspense just drains out of the book for me, replaced by a dull expectation of ticking off checklist items. I get exhausted just thinking about the book ahead and its cavalcade of locations, landmarks and polysyllabic place names that I’ll no doubt have to encounter to get to the end.

Of course, that’s a very bottom-up way of thinking about it – that approach (which is how I write) doesn’t fill in detail until it’s needed, so if a detail is there then the implication is that it’s needed and thus will appear in the story. The top-down approach (going back to the discussion earlier this year on tops and bottoms oh my) is to start with the map and the world it depicts, designing all the little bits and pieces that go into it, then write your story around some of those bits, secure in the knowledge that if you need to move further afield to follow the narrative, there’ll be something there to ground the story.

As I do more worldbuilding for Raven’s Blood and think about the locations within and outside Crosswater… no, I’m still a bottom-up writer, and I still don’t really want to develop locations and ideas other than the ones I specifically need for my story. But nonetheless I’ve developed a better appreciation for the humble map, less as a finished piece of work and more as a writing tool I can use to develop a sense of place, character and internal logic for both my setting and my story as a whole. And I’ve started seeing a lot of different ways that tool can be applied – because a map can be a kind of Swiss Army knife of storycrafting, and the way you interact with that map as both reader and writer can really reshape the experience of the narrative.

The time has come for me to draw some maps. I have met the enemy and he is me. And Photoshop.

Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that maps have been on my mind for a while, and I have thoughts and opinions. SO MANY OPINIONS. Too many for one, two or maybe even three blog posts.

So instead I’m declaring September to be the month of maps here on the old blog, a time when I’ll be looking at maps and how we use them in fiction. And by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’ – I’ll be putting up posts (and maps) about Raven’s Blood, The Obituarist, Arcadia (remember that one?) and some of my gaming projects, looking at how each addresses its map differently and uses it for different purposes. Those will be the Sunday night posts; if I manage to do mid-week posts as well (I’ll try, but my spare time is bleeding away already) then I’ll try to present additional map discussions based around stuff from other writers and around the interwebs. And maybe you folks can also pipe up with some of your thoughts about maps, stories and narrative physicality – whatever the hell that phrase that I just made up means.

A month of maps. Let’s get lost.