Maps and Make Believe

“I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and I find it hard to believe.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

  Soon after beginning The Year of the Red Door, I realized that I needed to make some maps.   At first, crudely sketched maps of places in relation to each other sufficed.   A rough scale (originally in leagues) was adequate.   But my map needs grew in complexity as the story did.  And as the back-stories and the histories of the world became more detailed, my maps did, too.   Eyeballing a map to determine a plot requirement was no longer sufficient.  I resorted to using compass dividers and rulers, penciling in lines along a straightedge, and using a calculator to figure out plausible journey lengths.

I’ve always rather enjoyed looking at maps.   Whether road maps, textbook maps, or topographical maps, they have fascinated me since I was a child.   There’s something extraordinary about even an ordinary map.  When I was around eleven or twelve, I decided to map all of the islands and pools and tributaries in a nearby swamp. It was an activity that got me lost several times, and nearly killed me at least once when I fell into sucking mud up to my armpits.   Mapmaking, I learned, can be exciting.

To this day, if I read any history book, or any interesting news account, I want to look at a map.   So, naturally, The Year of the Red Door would need maps, for my sake if not for my potential readers. But I put it off, having other things to do, until one of my editors asked for one. What at first was a sheet of notebook paper soon became two.   Then several sheets.   Then I began taping four, then six sheets of paper together. Then nine, then twelve.   I finally wised up and began using a poster printer ( Map making is easier said than done.   My current maps aren’t much to look at, but they get the job done, more or less.   And they are the product of endless corrections and tweaking, and a great deal of learning, mostly about how to use graphics software*.

But I also had to learn a good bit about my own story.   Things that my maps taught me. The maps revealed, more or less at a glance, where certain lines of narrative just would not work.   Rivers or lakes or mountains were sure to get in the way no matter where I put them.   Yes, I did move things around.   But after a while that just felt like cheating.   In my way of thinking, the world came first.   Then the events that came to pass within it. Not the other way around. In a sense, the maps and the stories began creating each other. That meant I needed to find some plausible ways for my characters to cross natural barriers and obstacles, and they would need the time to traverse those terrains and distances.   I could not dismiss my own experience, to be sure, as much as I may have wanted to. I know what it’s like to trudge through mountains on foot, or to ride all day long on horseback.   I know how wind and water act on hull, rudder, and sail.   I know how miserable it is to be injured, wet, and cold, huddled in a makeshift shelter.  So I understand how nice it would be to have a magical fix for every inconvenience or danger of travel (or of plot). However, that simply was not to be. At least, not in this story.   I’ve mentioned transportation in another post, saying that there are only two “magical” modes of human transportation.**   These I have used sparingly, reserving them for particular situations.   Otherwise, it is up to my characters to soldier along.   Maps or no maps.

“All paths look easy when drawn in ink.” –Ullin Saheed Tallin

 On a more literary level, such travels build character.   Travel strains the characters, and permit time for us to get to know them a little better.  Besides the rigors of travel itself–and how they face the situations that confront them along the way–reveals something of what is inside of them.   How they face the next situation lets us know what they have learned or how they may have changed.   Perhaps the outside journey may sometimes be an allegory for an internal one.   Sometimes the characters do great things.   Sometimes, no so much.   And sometimes it is a Herculean effort merely to keep going. So I’ve tried to provide some of my maps to the reader.   I’ve made every attempt to get them into the printed texts.   That is difficult.   The maps are large and detailed.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to make them available on the story website, and with greater resolution than small print allows.  And perhaps I may be able to do the same with the e-book editions. If such maps had been available to Robby and his companions, they might have had fewer problems along the way, and certainly a better understanding of the journey before them.   As it was, they were dismayed enough by the cruder versions they possessed. So it is probably a good thing for the sake of the story that they did not see my maps!


*I use, which is similar to GIMP but is a little bit less demanding on my computer.

**There is actually a third, although it really only transports the mind.   Another legendary method appear in the Reader’s Companion, but it is not mentioned in the TYOTRD.    

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