Mapping Your Story’s Setting

Benefits and Techniques for Mapping Your Story's Setting, by writing coach Sara LetourneauAs writers, we do our best to know our story’s setting as intimately as we know our characters. We can visualize the buildings, rooms, and geographic landscape. Maybe we even know the climate well enough to feel its heat or cold, driving rains, or windblown snow. But if you were actually dropped into the setting, would you be able to navigate from your protagonist’s home to another character’s – without accidentally changing direction more than once in the manuscript?

Don’t worry. Not every writer thinks of this when they begin a rough draft, much less decide on a story’s setting. However, knowing how to get around in that setting is incredibly important, for both you and your readers. So how can you keep place-related details straight and avoid making mistakes in the text? By creating a map of your setting.

This recently happened to me as I was working on my WIP, which takes place primarily on a fictional college campus. At one point, when the protagonist was walking from her dormitory to one of the academic buildings, I asked myself, “Which way does she need to walk to get there?” That prompted a host of other questions, like “What is the name of that academic building?”, “How close is the library?”, and “What does she see when she drives from her dorm to the campus’s front entrance?”.

The following night, instead of writing, I drew a campus map, with everything you’d likely find at a small college, down to the parking lots and street names. It’s no masterpiece, but I’m grateful I took the time to make it. In fact (*deep breath*), I think I’ll even share a photo of it here:

Benefits and Techniques for Mapping Your Story's Setting, by writing coach Sara Letourneau

Did I have fun making this map? You bet. But did indulging my curiosity serve a purpose? Absolutely. And if you’re writing about a fictional setting, including one inspired by a real-life location, you might want to consider mapping yours as well.

The Benefits of Mapping Your Story’s Setting

Even for writers who aren’t artistically inclined, the benefits of mapping a story’s setting outnumber (and outweigh) any drawbacks. A setting map can help you:

  • Remember the location and names of important places and objects of interest within the setting
  • Determine which way characters travel to get from Point A to Point B, as well as the distance between those points
  • Maintain consistency of names and directions in the story, and thus avoid confusing readers (and yourself)
  • Better understand the role of topographical features (or natural elements that often appear in maps, such as hills / mountains, coasts, bodies of water, and forests) in the setting
  • Make your vision of the setting more concrete, rather than keeping it all in your head

That last bullet underscores the most important reason for creating this kind of map: It makes the setting more real. By committing these details to paper, you’ve also committed to knowing the setting deeply. Then you can apply that knowledge to the story so that readers can feel like they’re driving the same roads or following the same sidewalks as your characters.

Seven Pointers for Creating a Map of Your Setting

As interesting as it might sound to draw a map of your setting, it’s important to approach the process carefully. In fact, before putting pencil to paper, you should already have an idea of what readers will find in the place you’re about to sketch. So here are the steps I took before and during my mapmaking process. Maybe this method will work for you, too.

  • Research real-life maps before you get started. First, I studied campus maps of real colleges in my local area (including my alma mater) that are about the same size in acreage and student population as my fictional college. This helped me decide how to structure my map and what features (buildings, streets, parking lots, etc.) it should include.
  • Determine the number of features. Knowing how many of each feature you’ll need can prevent unintentional overcrowding on your map. I already had a rough estimate of the college’s student population, so I used that number (as well as the statistics I’d found during my research of local colleges) to figure out a reasonable number of academic buildings, dormitories, and other structures.
  • Start small. If you’ve never created a map before, it might be overwhelming to start with a large are like a country or continent. Instead, focus on a smaller area such as a town, state, or other immediate region where the events of your story will take place. You can even draw a floor plan of a house or other building, if that’s more appropriate.
  • Gather your tools. Use pencils instead of pens, and have a pencil sharpener and a good eraser handy. That way, if you make any mistakes, they’re easy to remove. 😉 As for paper, I recommend drawing paper that’s receptive to pencil and either 11 x 14 or 14 x 17 inches in size, which allows for plenty of room to draw. You can find most of these supplies at your local arts and crafts stores.
  • Include topographic symbols, if you’re inclined. Nature is essential to the great outdoors, including the place you write about. The right natural elements in the right spots can enhance a setting’s personality, act as obstacles for characters, and reinforce its sense of realism. So consider adding symbols for trees, changes in elevation, bodies of water, etc. to your map. They don’t have to resemble actual topographic symbols found on maps. They’re simply for your reference, so use whatever works for your logic and artistic ability.
  • Create a legend for symbols and (if necessary) names. Also known as a key, this table is an ideal place for “explaining” what your map’s symbols mean. It can serve as a listing for the names of buildings, landmarks, and other highlighted areas as well. For my fictional college campus, I devised an alpha-numeric scheme (A1, B1, etc.) for labeling dormitories, academic buildings, athletic facilities, and so on directly on the map. Then I used a separate sheet of paper for my legend, where I identify the name of each building with its alpha-numeric label.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Remember, we’re not making works of art like the maps you’ll find in atlases, history books, or fantasy novels. So it’s OK if your lines aren’t straight or your erasure leaves smudge marks. What’s more important is that you’re putting in the time and effort to make this “reference document” in the first place.

Of course, if your setting is based on a real-life location, mapping that setting isn’t the same as visiting that location and familiarizing yourself with its unique features and sensory details. Creating that map, however, would be an excellent follow-up exercise to your site visit. You’d reap all of the benefits from this activity while enriching yourself, and your story, with first-hand knowledge of the place.

Regardless, the next time you’re struggling to remember certain details of your story’s setting, consider making a map of it. Don’t worry about how skilled you are at drawing. Instead, remember that this map is for your reference. Having one will help you feel more confident about your understanding of the place you’re writing about – and your ability to fully immerse your readers in the story.

NOTE: Admittedly I’m not familiar with any computer programs that create maps. But if any WHW readers are, please list them in your comments. Thank you!

Have you ever drawn a map of the setting of one of your stories? How helpful was the activity for you and your story? What other suggestions would you add? And if you’ve never mapped your story’s setting before, is it something you’d consider doing?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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31 Responses to Mapping Your Story’s Setting

  1. E.E. Rawls says:

    Maps are one of my favorite things about fantasy novels. I’m currently working on a few map sketches for my story, and it’s a lot of work but is very helpful, and makes the story world feel more concrete.

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  4. I have to admit that I tend to nerd out quite a bit when it comes to maps. Because my stories are almost always set in fictional worlds, maps area really helpful to keep me honest and help me visualize everything. I don’t think it had ever occurred to me to create a map for an existing place, but I can see now that doing so would have the same benefit. 🙂

    • It really can, Becca. And here’s a (not so) secret (anymore): I attempted to make a setting map for my previous WIP – and got so overwhelmed that I threw it out. :O I think I was trying to replicate too big an area of land, and I was so bent on ensuring the distance, mileage, etc. was accurate that the inexperienced mapmaker in me freaked out. So I’m grateful I tried out the exercise again with a much smaller geographic area, and with a much simpler focus.

      As always, thanks again for having me! 🙂

  5. Ooh, great post on a favourite topic of mine. I love maps and always have one at hand whilst writing. In my historical romances I reference old maps which often show important landmarks as well as streets and such. I set my contemporary romances in fictional versions of actual places that I’ve visited. But I have to create my own map to add extra roads, or a lake that I need for my plot. And, golly, the amount of time I’ve spent on Google maps for studying a location that I can’t travel to, like the UK – research!! 🙂

    • Actually, now that I think about it, I think this map-making exercise drew on my longtime love of atlases and geography. (I was also a big fan of the Carmen Sandiago computer game and TV show franchise, where players could be detectives and travel the world looking for clues.) So I’m glad that you and other readers have enjoyed this post so much, Luanna!

      Also, I know the feeling of researching settings and maps like crazy to ensure the vision in your head is realistic. 😉

  6. Ian S Bott says:

    Glad to hear someone else finds this as useful as I do. I thought it was because I’ve always been a visual artist long before I started writing, and “real writers” look at me kinda sideways when I talk about maps and plans to help me write.

    Great points about benefits, especially the last one about making things more concrete. When I feel the symptoms of writers block it sometimes boils down to the lack of concreteness in my own mind.

    And don’t worry – the maps I use to work from are often a lot rougher and less well-fleshed out than yours! As a relaxation from writing, though, I like to use drawing software to turn the rough sketches into something more professional to post to my website.

    • Thanks, Ian! I think it’s fantastic that some writers turn to art to help with their stories. One of my writer friends draws anime versions of her characters so she can concretize (I think that’s a real word?) their physical appearances and unique expressions. So I’m glad to hear you’ve also experimented with story setting maps and other visual aids.

      You mentioned that you use drawing software after you make your rough sketches. Is that software specific to your setting maps? Or do you use it for other things as well? One of the earlier commentors, Gabriela, had a question about software, so I wasn’t sure if that’s something you could help her with…?

      • Ian S Bott says:

        Hi Sara, I work on a Mac and I use iDraw for my visual projects. It’s a versatile product and, like all tools, it takes practice and experimentation to get good results. Most of my work has been ship and building plans, so I’m well versed in those kinds of line drawings. There are some examples posted to my website (www.iansbott.com) if you’re interested. I find it takes a different range of techniques to do things like maps or other styles of drawing. I’ve not done as much of that kind of work but I know the product can do it. Gabriela is welcome to contact me if she wants a discussion outside of the comments here.

  7. I’m dreadful at maps but I still attempt them. I find it helps me sort out things in the story.

  8. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Thanks for this, Sara. Though I have to be careful of writing advice, particularly GOOD writing advice! Given my perfectionist and completist tendencies, I could go all-out Tolkien on this. ‘Let go of perfectionism’ indeed!

    Luckily my WIP does not need maps since they already exist and predate it. My story is mostly a voyage on a huge ocean liner across an ocean and up an Amazon-like river to a lost city on a large lake. The liner is based on several 1930s liners, so I have detailed deck plans etc. in books and online. In short, it’s a place that goes places, to paraphrase the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown’s famous question about the TITANIC (When does this place get to New York?).

    The world is based on Earth, so I concentrate on telling the reader where it varies from our Earth.

    • LOL! I agree with you, John. Drawing that map was a huge test of my perfectionism. But once I realized that the map was simply meant to help me, that it wasn’t supposed to be a masterpiece, I no longer cared about my (lack of) artistic abilities. And I had fun with it, too!

      That’s great that you were able to find deck plans as a basis for your ship setting. Were the 1930s liners steamships? I ask because I remember that your WIP is steampunk, so I wasn’t sure whether the type of “fuel” for your ship would affect its travel speed.

      • JOHN T. SHEA says:

        My WIP is Dieselpunk rather than Steampunk, i. e. influenced by the real life years between the First and Second World Wars, rather than the Nineteenth Century. The distinction is a matter of almost theological debate at times, with some seeing the two ‘Punks’ as overlapping. Nonetheless, my liner is indeed a steamship, and I have a streamlined steam locomotive too!

        All the big liners were steamships until well after WW2. But they usually burned a heavy fuel oil that was like a thick diesel oil. My liner is closest to the original RMS Queen Mary, which sailed from 1936 to 1967, and has been a static but still floating hotel in Long Beach, California, ever since. It routinely topped 30 knots, faster than any present-day liner, but it also used a lot of fuel. One can visit and even stay on board it, something I have yet to do, for all my research!

        My only complaint about your map is the distinct lack of sea monsters. All fictional maps should have sea monsters. In college campuses probably in the Marine Biology Department…

  9. Love the idea. I can see how it would help keep things clear. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Tami Meyers says:

    My historical fiction WIP is set in the 1850s Placerville, California, so accurate setting was important. It’s not easy to find maps or pictures from that period. The closest I could come was an 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, and although things change in 35 to 40 years, it has been an amazing asset in tracking places and events in my story. The Fire Insurance maps show residences, businesses, churches, cemeteries, bridges and many other local landmarks, but the real bonus is that it lists the name of streets, alleys and each business.

    • Tami, one of my first stories was about the California gold rush, somewhere near Placerville :). I couldn’t find very good maps for that time period, either, so I ended up drawing my own…

    • That’s a good point regarding real-world settings, Tami. Finding maps of what a place decades or hundreds of years ago can be difficult – even impossible. So in those cases, you usually have to be creative (like Becca was). But that’s amazing that you were able to find the fire insurance map! Best wishes as you continue working on that story. 🙂

  11. I frequently draw maps for my YA short stories. I need to know where my characters hike, canoe, or cross-country ski so that I can plan for disaster and how they get out of it. This also allows me to “see” what’s in their way or what’s up ahead.

    Thanks for a great post. All best to you!

  12. Thank you for this. It’s very interesting and I going to implement this

  13. :Donna says:

    Oh, Sara, I am SO “big” on maps! I love them in books when I open that first page and see them and it’s one of the first things I’m inclined to do when I begin all that imagining. Love this 😀

  14. I have done this for a few of my “quest” stories and wow, not only did it help me better navigate my world, but it also helped me better visualize conflict points along the way – different places where obstacles (people, events, weather, situations) could try to derail my characetr’s process.

    The only thing I found a bit frustrating was my “lacking” artistic abilities, lol (I kept thinking about how doofy my map looked, but finally was able to shake this inner criticism because of the benefits of doing one).

    The process of mapping really makes me think more carefully about the story itself and the huge impact setting has on the story and how it will unfold. Thanks for this piece, Sara! 🙂

    • Thanks, Angela! I had to ignore my own criticisms about my “artistic abilities” (or, rather, lack thereof) when I was making my map. I’m one of those people who can’t even draw a straight line with a ruler. 😮 But I managed to let go of that while mapping my protagonist’s college campus, and boy am I thankful I was able to.

      Btw I like your point about maps helping us visualize points in the setting / story where characters can run into obstacles. Knowing when and where these can happen is very important!

  15. Was hoping for a suggestion on an easy computer mapmaker, one that measures distances even if I draw the map myself. My main characters are Messengers, scurrying all over the kingdom, and my betas requested a map already.

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