Friday, 8 September 2017

Why you're not getting a map.



A question posed to me on this blog.
Q: When are you going to draw a map for Book of the ancestors series? I'm dying to read Red Sister but can't bring myself to do it without a map.
A: I'm not going to. If you can't read a book without a map I guess it's not a book for you.

I'm often asked: "Did you draw the map first or as you wrote the book." This is frequently by people who haven't read any of my books. 

There is an assumption there ... fantasy books have maps. Which is odd, since I have read hundreds (possibly thousands) of novels without maps, many of them set in regions I'm unfamiliar with. The fact is that for a great many works of fiction maps are irrelevant, they are about what people are doing in their lives, if Sarah goes to visit her uncle in Vostok it is sufficient for me to know it took her several hours on the train and when she got there the forests were covered in snow. I don't need to look it up on a map. It doesn't matter. 

(small spoilers for the setting in The Broken Empire and The Book of the Ancestor trilogies follow)

When I wrote Prince of Thorns I did not draw the map first. Or during. Or the day, week, month, or year after I had finished. I didn't consult some map in my head. When Jorg goes to Gelleth it was enough for me to know that it took him and his men several days to get there, crossing through mountain passes ... or whatever ... I forget the details. It was never important to the story. The fact is that what was important was that he had to go somewhere and do something.

I drew the map for Prince of Thorns three years later when my publisher asked me to. Sure, I thought, I can draw a map. At that point I thought it would fun to use the map of Europe with a raised sea level. The map never mattered to me writing the story, so it can't really add anything to reading the story except for an illusion of "control".


I've nothing against maps, I just never look at them. I've read the five books of A Song of Ice and Fire twice. The first time I saw the map was when watching the credits of the Game of Thrones TV show. I certainly acknowledge that the map in a story of many nations and multiple widely separated PoV characters does have value to add, and if I wrote a story like that I would draw a map. But the fact remains, I very much enjoyed the story without reference to the map.

In Red Sister the vast majority of the story takes place within a circle a few hundred yards across. The small amount of traveling is simple. The rare references to remote places are similarly simple. The habitable world is a corridor fifty miles wide and tens of thousands of miles long, following the equator. The empire is flanked to the west by one country behind a mountainous border, and to the east by a sea with another country on the far shore.

A map would be a long skinny thing on a page that was 90%+ white space. The detail would be hard to see and invented by me entirely to fill the map ... no other reason. Or alternatively it would fill a dozen or more pages (the corridor now the height of the page and the length stretching through many pages) filled with even more arbitrary detail, hills, mountains, forests, rivers, roads, and towns never referenced in the book.

Well ... I'm not doing it!


By way of compromise, here's a "word map"



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<-Points East, Scithrowl (mountains) Empire (Marn Sea) Durn, Points West->
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Chocolate ... no wait ... more ice.
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4 comments:

  1. I seem to remember that Joe Abercrombie also resisted the need for a map in The Blade books. By the fifth book, he'd given in to the map cravers but the maps themselves were confusing as hell. You can probably blame the map thing on Tolkien.

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  2. I apologize for the length of this comment. First paragraph is relevant. The rest meanders.
    I admire and respect your work. If I learn to describe my characters half as effectively as you do yours, and in as few words, I'll be forever in your debt. I respect your reasoning for a lack of maps and I tip my head to you for being able to write even a scene without one.

    I come from as opposite a camp as there is (one might say, on the far side of the map? *slaps knee*). Silexare's map is the first thing I created, twenty years ago, fifteen years before I ever considered writing stories therein. Maybe that's why I'm not able to write even a single scene without sketching a map.
    If Kale lies wounded beneath a rocky overhang in the slain warthound's den while Arc closes on him with violent intent and Tivali hides out of sight in the bushes, I cannot write the chaos that follows without first answering a dozen questions. A simple sketch answers all those questions. That sketch--a bird's-eye view of the area--qualifies as a map. By the time I finish the story I'm working on I'll have a pile of said "maps," however ugly. Most will be small, some town-sized, and at least one will encompass the entire nation.

    Maps help me block out events. I try to keep from expecting them to supplement the story because stories shouldn't rely on non-written props, be they visual, auditory, olfactory, etc. But I love maps and since some people do as well, I don't mind sacrificing a page or two to indulge.

    ALL THAT TO ASK: Are you telling me you don't have at least a mental map of the Convent of Sweet Mercy? You have to!

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  3. I agree with you. I glance at a map and sometimes admire the artistry that is displayed, but most often I blow by it and dive into the story. Although if someone talented were to offer you their hand, it might make a nice addition between the table of contents and prologue.
    Your word map had me laughing coffee from my nose!

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  4. or host a "map contest". winner map possibly included in the next book. win win

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