Maps in Novels

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
One of the best-known examples of a novel that features a map is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's annotated map of Middle-earth discovered inside copy of Lord of the Rings

I've just enjoyed The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting. The action is set in the narrator's Norway, the Shetland Islands and the WW1 battlefields of northern France. There are three maps at the beginning of the book showing these place, which I referred to from time to time. Clicking
on the Amazon page will open the book and show the maps.

I closed the cover of Mytting's novel feeling the blues that I wouldn't find another story as engaging. Fortunately, I'd just borrowed The Fallen, the latest instalment of Ace Atkin's Quinn Colson series of crime novels, which are reliably entertaining. The protagonist is an ex-army Ranger, who's become sheriff of his home town in Mississippi. Ace Atkins invented the topography where his stories are located, and always includes a map showing the crime-ridden town of Jericho and its environs in Tibbehah County. Amusingly, he identifies he declares that he's the Owner and Sole Proprietor on the map.


Ace Atkins has certainly created a convincing world where his heroes and villains do battle, and the map helps the reader to place the action.

In my own Cornish Detective series, I've mainly used well-known tourist locations which many British readers will know, though my protagonist's home turf is more of a mixture of local features, and I changed the town name where his police station is located from Liskeard to the ancient form of Liskerret. I don't really feel the need to provide a map, though if my story ever gets published it might be suggested that the book company's designer creates an appropriately picaresque map to add to the image formed by the blurb and cover illustration.

Do any of you draw maps for your stories—if only work-in-progress versions to keep things organised in you own mind? I know that they're commonly found in historical, science-fiction and fantasy writing, though I somehow doubt that they ever feature in romance and erotica.
I *adore* maps in books, though I cannot really articulate why. My passion for them started with your first example, Lord of the Rings. I actually have an early, hardback version of The Two Towers that I rescued from some awful jumble sale. The cover is a little worse for wear, but the large, fold-out map in the back is pristine and it makes me SQUEE every time I look at it. As a child, I used to pore over the thing, tracing the journeys made by the characters and pointing out places of interest not touched in that story. It made the world seem all the more real to me.

As to my own work, well: for all that I can write, I have the artistic talent of a concussed marrow. That being said, as I was planning the second book in my YA series, I realised that knowing the layout of the town it was based in would be important. I didn't want characters doing things that were physically impossible, like darting between buildings that had previously been miles apart. And so, I drew a map. God knows how I managed it - I can barely even write words these days, let alone draw! - but it turned out really well. I just hope I can get book one in good enough shape so that book two and its map get to see the light of day!
Maps add a spatial dimension to mystery stories, plus you don't want to be inconsistent. I've never included a map in a published book, but if places are important, I have one that I use while writing.
I always draw maps while writing--maps of the landscape, house floor plans, schematics of fight scenes. I haven't included a map in a novel, but not because I don't want to...I simply can't draw, and can't justify the expense of having an illustrator draw one...yet. Reports from kids reading The Dragon Slayer's Son indicate they're sitting there with a map of New Zealand beside the book, tracing the path the characters are traveling--that tells me I need a map. And I know exactly the style I want, with little dragons drawn in the appropriate places. Just waiting to get some decent sales, and then I'll add a map.
I do include maps in my books simply because most of what I read drives me to refer to maps - I need the spatial dimension - and I like to make it easy for my readers. Then again, I can happily spend time studying a map or a chart. I take window seats in planes because I like to look at the land and sea below and figure out where I am. And now I have charting software in my tablet, with GPS, so that I can follow the plane's progress in greater detail than on the overhead screens. We're all sad in our own ways...
I always do my own as I write; island, individual rooms, castle, caves etc to keep my head straight. Would be a huge appendix to get them all in; fun though.
I love drawing and colouring in maps, sketching out architectural blueprints for characters' houses, making up detailed street maps. While doing that, I invariably find all kinds of new things I can put into my maps and spend ages designing 1:12 ratios, measuring distances, working out which direction rivers flow in my imagined country, where compass true north lies, relative times of year for sunrise/sunset, phases of the moon, lists of plant names for bushes, grasses and trees found on a bit of open countryside on the edge of the woods (there have to be woods). Closet cartographer, moi?

Then I get to outlining ditches, farm dams and a handy little chart showing agricultural cycles through planting and cropping seasons and where to locate fallow fields. Leylines once used by early surveyors. Invariably I have to put in a graveyard and all kinds of epitaphs on tombstones, have a Celtic cross all green with moss and a stone cherub.

And if there's a graveyard, there has to be a church tower and a pre-Christian pagan ruin.

If we go pagan, a good map needs some archaeology and a cave or digging site with ancient axeheads and something bronze. Then you need a Viking battlefield or two. A Neolithic hill fort.

A squiggle of light blue coastline to show where the Vikings landed. Tides indicated and rocky shoals. A later shipwreck. But why not have an island? X marks the spot. And there are castaways building a treehouse as a Lookout Point. Why not a mysterious archipelago too? Or an abandoned sailing ship? Latitudes and longitudes done with the symbols shown on Claudius Ptolemy's Geographia!

So hard to get back to writing a contemporary crime fiction in a tight urban setting. Maps are irresistible for some of us, mapmaking is a creative activity complete in itself. I try not to go there.
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