Maps and Direction: Exploring a Metaphor

I recently stopped in at a local gas station/convenience store to look for a local area map that will help me think about where to buy my next house.  The woman next to me in line immediately asked where I wanted to go, and offered to give me directions.  On my way out of the store (empty handed–wonder if other people still buy maps any more), it occurred to me that people have begun to confuse directions with maps, as if, having an app for that precludes the necessity or advisability of having a map for the same thing.

But directions and maps are actually very different.  Directions will tell you how to get where you’re going, maps tell you about where you are.  Directions are useful if you are heading to a very particular place.  The contemporary version of directions, from an app like Waze, will give you turn-by-turn instructions, and suggest alternate routes if something goes wrong.

map of a hike I am planning

map of a hike I am planning


the trail description and directions for the same hike

Directions won’t help you find the most interesting route.  They won’t help you find another place you might like to go, or understand the territory you’ll be passing through.  Apps will find you a restaurant or retailer, especially if they have paid for the privilege.  But they won’t help you understand the growth pattern of an area, the way that topography affects the road systems and the lives of the people who live there.  They don’t suggest the landscape, the levels of congestion or the overall layout of the place.  If I want to *go* somewhere, I’ll get directions.  If I want to *know* somewhere, I’ll get a map.

The fantasy genre is sort of obsessed with maps.  It is one of the signs of epic fantasy that the book begins with a map, and some recent novels have several–a diagram of a key fortress, a street map, and a wide-view of the countryside.  One of my favorites series, the Steerswomen books by Rosemary Kirstein is, in fact, all about how the maps get made, and the maps in each book expand from the previous one as the character explores and understands the territory.

But many of the recent maps are really just a set of directions.  They display in a graphic format the five or six key places, and where they are in relation to each other.  Tolkien’s maps included mountains, swamps and forests, just as real maps usually do, and might include places the book isn’t even going.  They sketch an entire world by revealing a sense of the place, and suggesting that more lies beyond the borders of the page, just as any local map will include roads and rivers and mountain chains that parade off into the unknown.

It is useful to know, in an extended work of fiction, the relationship between the places mentioned. How long will it take them to travel through Mirkwood?  Which cities lie closest, or are there islands in that ocean?  In addition to my collection of maps both historical and contemporary, large-scale and intimate, I also have a few hand-drawn maps, where a stranger provides me with not only directions, but an idea of how those directions fit into the landscape.  I think the most interesting maps in fiction are those that operate in a similar way. They’re not just the geography of the place, but also suggest the history and the significance of that geography, like Kirstein’s maps, or the map in Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant, which is drawn by the protagonist to diagram the relationships not between the places, but between the nobles who rule them.

The long and the short of it is, directions are useful, but maps are a heck of a lot more meaningful.  Which got me thinking about this as a metaphor for writing.  One basic distinction many writers make is between “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants, and “plotters” who develop outlines in advance.  In metaphorical terms, the pantsers are like those apps.  They have an idea of where they want to go, and the app–the muse–gives them turn-by-turn instructions for how to get there.  The route might be long, meandering, traffic-laden–it might be short, direct and boring.  The writer doesn’t know the route before they set out.

Plotters might be more like the people who use Mapquest.  They get all the directions in advance, including landmarks or distances, and a handy overview map that shows how the route fits together, and allows for changing the route and making other choices before the wheels hit the road.  (In case you’re wondering, when I drive someplace, this is how I go, and I try to also print a local map of the last few turns showing the neighborhood.)

But the maps. . .when I am writing something big, I’m not just picking my point A and point B and filling in the bits in between.  I begin with a broader picture than that.  Essentially, I begin by creating the mental map of the space in which the book (or the series) takes place.  With the Dark Apostle books, it involved actual maps of places, plus lots of research about the time period, the settings, the tools of the medieval surgeon, and all of those goodies.

My next project will be a secondary world epic fantasy.  Creating my map for this one involves world-building: in part, literally.  What is the substance of this place?  What landforms are important to the world?  Creating cultures and the settings they arise from and dwell in–along with the flora and fauna of those places (which sends me back to the research books again).  I get to create a cosmology, and develop a pantheon of religious figures and a variety of belief structures.  When I am finished with the brainstorming and development phase of this project, I’ll be ready to print up the directions to take me from the beginning to the end of the first novel–but I will also be able to see the territory it moves through, to consider how that route interacts with other places and other pathways, so I can return to the map and find many more stories.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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1 Response to Maps and Direction: Exploring a Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Random updates not all about me | Rosemary Kirstein

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