Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Writer Wednesday: Finding My Way Through Fictional Settings

Some lucky people are born with a GPS implanted in their brains. Others are DC, directionally challenged. Guess which group claims me as a charter member? I'm hopeless when it comes to directions, as are most members of my family. Whenever we go somewhere new, we resemble the Twits in a Monty Python sketch, each person darting off in a completely different direction. (Even more tragically this sometimes happens in places we're familiar with.)

When I wrote the first draft of my middle-grade novel, my dysfunctional affliction kicked in as I went about creating my setting. My story takes place in a fictional New England coastal town, loosely based on several I've visited. I blithely plunked down buildings, parks, and historical landmarks wherever I took a fancy, with no regard to how they stood in relation to one another. Now that I'm revising, I'm finding that this carefree approach isn't working. I'm as lost in my fictional world as I am in the real one--with no GPS to help me.

My solution has been to create a map to help me navigate my fictional landscape. A map forces me to decide where a house or statue or cemetery is actually located. I've also added roads and streets. Now when my character drives or bikes to town, I know where she's going and how long it will take her to get there. Another benefit is that I must name these places.

Since I first learned to read, I've always enjoyed fiction books with hand-drawn maps. Early favorites include Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and My Father's Dragon. Treasure Island, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Hobbit also have amazing maps. But not all maps feature fantastical worlds. For instance, there's William Faulkner's map of Yoknatawpha County and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Mystery novels sometimes include maps or floor plans. I'm thinking specifically of Agatha Christie, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Arthur Upfield, Ellis Peters, and Nevada Barr.

For an absolutely wonderful post on the subject, check out Maps of Fictional Worlds. You'll find oodles of fantastic links to all kinds of maps, from childhood classics to adult contemporary novels. You can get lost there for hours. So bring a GPS!


  1. You sound like me! I'm always losing direction, both in real life, and in my fictional worlds. I think it is the ability to synthesize memories and respond to emotions, more than place, which in some ways can enrich our writing, and in other ways, can make our worlds too indistinct. Your map idea, after a first draft, makes a lot of sense.

    On another subject: I love My Father's Dragon. I discovered it when my son was about six, and it was one of our best chapter book readalouds. I'm always recommending it to parents who actively read to their children. It's a great readaloud for probably about age 4 to even age 9. The maps and the illustrations definitely add to the appeal.

  2. I am also directionally challenged. I can't even give directions to my own house! When I write - which, admittedly, isn't all that frequently these days - I run into the same problem.

    I love the link you shared - I'm always fascinated by maps, even when they confuse me. Do you know the Polk Street School series by Patricia Reilly Giff? Those books always began with a floor plan of the classroom, and that always fascinated me as a kid.

    This was a great topic for a post - I enjoyed it!