As 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:
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!
Sara 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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