Do We Need Maps in Fantasy Books?

Alentejo house wall, Portugal (2005) Photo (c) KarenAbrahamson

Yesterday I spent part of the afternoon mapping the layout for a community event I’m planning. I found myself confounded (for a bit) about the need for scale, because I needed to be able to estimate the amount of security fencing I needed. What struck me was that I didn’t actually need to make a map. Others could have determined the fencing needs through simple math. But for me, the answer to my fencing needs lay in graphic representation so that I could measure the length of fencing from visualizing the exact boundaries of everything. It raised the question for me of whether maps of fantasy worlds were always necessary.

Controlling the reader’s experience of imaginary places seems to me to be the main purpose of maps in fantasy books – to set hard boundaries around the reader’s imagination. Whether a map is actually necessary has been a topic of discussion among writers. I wonder if the debate about the inclusion of maps couldn’t learn something of benefit from looking at dialogue within the cartographic world.

Dhamayagyi Phayto, Pagan, Burma (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

You see, there are some pundits who suggest that professional and academic cartography is dying because it has become too cut off from the human experience and too insistent on rules and scales and design constraints, while the human need to map (or simply to talk about location) is under constant evolution. Think about some of the things mapped today. It’s not mountains and rivers and landscapes. In my non-writing life I’m dealing with maps of childhood vulnerability, community asset maps and maps of fast food restaurants placed near high schools.

Not exactly like the maps of the great explorers, which is why I question whether qualities like scale are necessary, or even possible or useful, for many types of maps including those in fantasies. The maps I’m dealing with in my non-writing life are helpful to because they help me express certain phenomena occurring in the community, but I didn’t have to do it with a map. I could have provided a chart or a list, just as the fantasy author can provide description. Was a map even necessary? Is it necessary in a fantasy?

In the past, most of my books have been without maps, instead painting the picture of place with my words. In my epic fantasy, however, (The Warden of Power) I felt that a map was necessary as I wrote the first volume of my epic so that I could ensure place names, etc., were used consistently in the manuscript and its sequels. Did I include the map in the book? Actually, no.

I think the reading experience should be one that transports the reader to a place that they and the writer create together, without a map setting boundaries around the reader’s experience. Let the reader read my words, their brain cells fire, and reinterpret the world in my fiction. It doesn’t matter that they might not imagine the world exactly like me. My words are code and the reader will interpret them from within the context of what matters to them. Isn’t that what

Morning shepards, the Sunday Market, Kashgar (1999) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

reading is all about? Creating a world in your head? Some of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had involved artists (or Hollywood) providing their interpretation of a book I love. Inevitably their attempt to place boundaries around a character or the landscape wasn’t consistent with what I had in my head.

Mapping, like other forms of communication, reflects a need to express, to create and to understand, but setting a map in a book – like setting rigid rules around mapping — it can stymie the imagination. This applies whether we’re creating new maps to express new ideas or situations, or creating a world in a reader’s mind. Mapping, like dreaming, is a human need. Must we, as writers, place boundaries on that need?



In Search of a World Map

This week I finished the second draft of book two in my post apocalyptic fantasy, Terra Incognita, series. It wasn’t easy because it required a fairly major rewrite of much of my major character’s attitudes and motivations because I hadn’t mapped my character out from book one to book three. As I get started on Book Three, I’m thinking about how the importance of a consistent road map across a series of books is just as important as a consistent map of the world.

My last post spoke of the work done to standardize measures in mapmaking that led to the creation of the scientific metric measuring system. But the creation of the metric system was only the start in a venture to create of a consistent set of maps of the world. This might not seem sexy, but think about traveling to a different locale and finding the maps you are using don’t use consistent measurements and contradict each other. You end doing a mass of translations to make the maps work or you might end up throwing the maps out because they are so inconsistent it’s easier to simply start from scratch. That was the situation for many explorers because the maps they had might have used a consistent measurement scale (but not always), but were also based on measurements started from different starting points. In other words the Prime Meridian had never been agreed upon.

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The trail turns upwards (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

After the agreement about the metric system, there were still disagreements in the cartographic world. One of the major ones was the position on the earth from which meridians (the imaginary lines drawn on the earth from pole to pole that connect all spots along the longitude) should be referenced – in other words where was the zero point on the globe from which all other distances would be measured. To this point in time, where measurements began depended upon the nationality of the scientist conducting the measurement.

The need for a Prime Meridian had existed for all Cartographers. Ptolemy had chosen the Fortunate Islands – at his time the westernmost extent of the world. But the age of politics had national sentiment taking precedent with the French recommending the zero point’s location in Paris, the Spanish recommending either Toledo or Cadiz, the Italian Pisa or Rome, and Americans wanting Washington or Philadelphia etc. It took the International Meridian Conference in 1884 to settle on Greenwich as the Prime Meridian which gave us our zero longitude, and also set our clocks and time zones with Greenwich Mean Time.

Venice's Grand Canal (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

A later conference of the International Geographic Congress realized the mapping issues I mentioned above meant that there was a need to revise the world’s maps to create a consistent map of the world. It led to a proposal for an International Map of the World that would all be drawn to a single scale – 1:1,000,000 (1 centimeter =10 kilometers or 1 inch equals 15.78 miles) – leading to the name of the project being the Millionth Map. It would also be drawn using standardized symbols and colors. The project was debated for a period, but after examples of the maps were produced, in 1913 an agreement was reached. Maps were to be created for each 4 degrees of latitude and 6 degrees of longitude, not paying attention to national boundaries. All place names had to use the Roman alphabet.

Little Uigher girl, Sunday Market, Kashgar, Western China (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

It was a slow process. Between 1913 and the start of the First World War only eight maps were produced out of a total of 2,500 required to map the world. Between 1921 and 1946, the American Geological Survey produced the 107 maps that comprised the map of Hispanic American (North and South America). By the 1930s 405 maps had been produced in total, but the central repository of the maps (in Paris) was largely destroyed during the Second World War. In 1953, the United Nations assumed responsibility for oversight of the project, but by the 1980s only 800-1000 maps had been completed and many were not completed using exactly the same standards. Since then the U.N. has stopped even reporting on the project, so after all this work the Millionth Map languishes and who knows when you’ll fall right off its edges when you visit another country and have to work with maps that don’t mesh.

This suggests that I had better get busy and piece together the latitudes and longitudes of book three in my series, so that all of the books provide a complete and consistent picture of Terra’s world.



Destructive Forces, or The Beauty of Making Things Worse

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the destructive force of Ben and Shiva. Ben has his penchant for getting in behind breakable objects and purposefully shoving them off of shelves. (I have much less brick-a-brack these days.) Shiva has developed a penchant for shredding paper—cardboard—plastic. Anything he can sink his little teeth and claws into and I constantly am catching him at this lovely trick on things like – oh – my business license, or a manuscript stacked and ready to be mailed out.

I wonder if editors would understand a few chewed corners.

Hmm, maybe they would just figure I have mice, or was particularly nervous about mailing this one out?

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ruins and fromages trees, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Anyway, in the midst of trying to preserve my manuscripts and various and sundry pieces of memorabilia from my travels, I got to thinking about destruction and its place in our lives and writing. At the same time a writer friend of mine sent me a link to some fantastic photos of the erosion and destruction of Detroit . The photos are bizarrely science fictional and evoked thoughts of Night of the Living Dead, Twelve Monkeys and War of the Worlds, and yet they are absolutely and utterly beautiful with their haunting look at faded glories. Maybe it’s just me, (but I think not, given the hordes of other visitors to places like Angkor, and Athens and Machu Picchu) but I am fascinated not just by the vestiges of what was once great and has now been destroyed, but also in the cracks in the great edifices and the things climbing through from the other side. As I watch the people of Egypt struggle for democracy I think of new life, like the fromages tree that grow from the Angkor ruins (one is on my website home page). Or maybe it’s the wisdom and laughter that shines through from an age-ruined face.

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

Buddhist nun at Mingan, Mandalay, (1997) Photo (c) Karen Abraha

What does this have to do with writing?

A writer’s job is to make things worse and to recognize that destruction is life. This is hard, because even though I think we are attracted to destruction—fascinated by it, even, if you notice the way traffic slows next to a serious traffic accident—we hate to inflict it on other beings. We are fascinated and repulsed by news of a slaughter of others. Haiti’s earthquake, for example, or Hurricane Katrina, or the Tsunami that wiped out so many in Malaysia and Thailand. And yet as a writer our hands pause as we destroy our character’s beloved possession, or reputation. We hold back from hurting them physically or mentally. We take heed of the cardinal rule and DON’T kill their cat or the dog or the horse, but we don’t do other things to wound them either.

Which makes our writing boring.

Think about it. Are we interested in a character skipping happily through life? No. Even all those Jackie Collins novels of the beautiful people carry their own carnage. That’s what makes us read those novels and all those T.V. magazines: seeing the crumbling of those magnificent edifices of the cults of personality.

So it’s not just thrillers and action stories that should have destructive forces, whether they’re external or internal to our characters, we need them to ignite the passion in the reader and make them want to read on. The ‘oh-no’ moment. The tension of anticipation of when the lover finds out that they’ve been cheated on. The implications when a character finds their home, their family, their life (insert your character’s loss here) is gone. We want to know and we want to understand how character’s overcome, because we all have those forces in our lives and we want to see what comes after.

The difference is, in our writing (unlike all life situations), the edifices of the character’s old life may crumble or burn, but something lovely and fragile and – more – arises from the ashes. Like that fromages tree. Like the wisdom I see in those old eyes.

So get back to your destruction when you turn to your keyboard. I’m going to keep an eye on that chewed box in the corner to see what loveliness arises.

Voice: Kitchen Cupboards, Gleaming Mountains, and a Peeled Pommelo

For all that Ben and Shiva are full brothers, they are very different cats with very different voices. Shiva, though much smaller, has the loud Siamese yowl that can shatter sleep like a siren. He’s a skitter-bug cat that loves to play and will make a toy out of anything he can get his little Velcro paws on. His favorite playtime is diving under the pillows on my bed and waiting, like a jaguar, for something to move so he can attack. He also likes to sit on top of the kitchen cupboards peering down like a vulture.

Sweet and evil (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Sweet and evil (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ben, on the other hand, is much quieter, with mews more like muttering to himself, but there are dark waters swirling in that cat. This week the challenge has been that he has figured out how to open upper kitchen cupboards – in particular the one above the fridge that holds the wine glasses (maybe he’s developed a taste for the vino?). He’ll throw anything off the fridge that I put up to block him. The scary thing is I actually know when he figured out how to do it. I saw him watching me as I was getting something out of the cupboard and the spark of idea absolutely flashed in his eyes.

While both of these cats have watched me open cupboards numerous times, both of them (and me) come from different perspectives. Shiva comes from the perspective of “that’s interesting that she can do that”, while Ben comes from the place of “If she can do that, so can I – and no one can stop me”. One comes from the place of a gentle, clowning soul, while the other is just, well, evil? Me, I just want my wine glasses safe in the cupboards, all of which illustrates the underlying concept of character voice – different perspectives regarding our environment.

This is different from a writer’s voice. A writer’s voice comes through as style. A writer’s style may grow and change, but you can tell a Stephen King no matter when he wrote it, or under what name. Same goes for a James Lee Burke. There’s a certain attention to detail that comes through no matter what he writes.

But character voice can be the bane of new writers. What is it? How does it work? What’s all the fuss about when I can write a beautiful descriptive scene, or a terrific action sequence?

Character voice ilustrates the different world view each character possesses, just as Ben and Shiva and I each have different perspectives about my kitchen cupboards. I’ll share with you two different stories from my travels that illustrate how two people can live through exactly the same thing and have totally different experiences.

I lived in Thailand for a while and while I was there I travelled around with a wonderful Thai friend named Nin. Now, one of my favorite Thai delights was the large citrus fruit called pommelo. For anyone who hasn’t tried them, they are like a grapefruit only much larger, drier, and sweeter, and their rind is about an inch thick. As a result they are delicious, but incredibly labor intensive to peel.

So Nin and I were driving with her fiancée and we stopped and bought a pommelo and she began to peel it for me. Not that I was in any way incapable of peeling the darn thing myself. She not only peeled the rind, she then carefully performed delicate surgery on each segment to release the luscious flesh from its skin. Then she passed each delicious piece to me or her husband-to-be.

Now that I think back on it, it was one of the most beautiful examples of the Thai ethic of total focus on performing each action perfectly in order to provide pleasure to others. At the time, however, I was embarrassed. I thought she didn’t think I was capable of peeling a pommelo, and I felt uncomfortable having her serve me when I could have peeling the fruit myself. Yet to Nin this was just being the lovely woman that she was, and gifting a friend with something she loved. Two different people experiencing the same thing, but coming from different cultures, our understanding of the event meant something dramatically different.

What draws the eye: Little girl in Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

What draws the eye: Little girl in Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other example took place along the Silk Road in western China. My friend and I were smashed side by side on an interminable bus ride across the Taklamakan desert and far in the distance across an eternally flat land, I saw a bluff gleaming in the low angled sunlight. I watched it change iridescent pinks, blues and mauves as the light fell in the late afternoon, so I hauled out my notebook and waxed on and on about the wonder of beauty in the midst of all that desolation. When I finished with my eloquence, I turned to my friend, a fellow Canuck and mathematician, and pointed out the mountain and prepared to launch into my ode to beauty. What did she say when I pointed out the mountain?

“Sure. It’s chalk.”

A perfect example of how different our minds worked. And that’s character voice. While I waxed poetry in my journal she was busy examining the visual data to determine the geological makeup of that mountain. The jar of the dissonance in our experiences shut me down – until I burst out laughing.

If only I could shut Ben down so easily.


My two cats have very different eating habits. Ben (or Big Boy, as I call him) weighs fifteen pounds and will eat just about anything I put in front of him. Shiva (aka Little Man) weighs all of 11 pounds soaking wet and after a good meal. I worry about his weight because when you pick him up and he feels like he’s all bones and skin.

Kashgar morning, before market (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Kashgar morning, before market (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

For Shiva it has to be the right food, at the right temperature, at the right age out of the tin, and (I swear) out of the right part of tin, or he won’t eat it. These days it’s venison – yes, venison. Nothing but the best for Shiva, dear. He’s the one who, when given a bowl of kibble with a mixture of the kind he really likes and the kind he tolerates but needs to eat, will, of course, fish the favored kibble out of the bowl and then turn up his nose at the rest. Blasted cats.

Now, while this illustration is indicative of the types of personalities of these boys, it is also a wonderful metaphor for something important in writing, which is feeding ourselves. No, I’m not talking about how some writers can plough through a mountain of food, or how some writers who shall remain nameless will not eat anything green, or anything that has passed within ten miles of a vegetable. No, I am talking about feeding our souls.

The writer’s soul (aka the wily muse) is a creature that requires constant feeding of the kinds of things that make you want to write. For some it’s the anger at some injustice in the world. For some it’s the inspiration of music. For me, the inspiration is travel and other cultures.

I was just reminded by a friend that people might want to know more about my travels in other places, like western China or Northern India. Let me tell you about one such event. It involves food, or at least tea, and is the type of experience that feeds my writing.

Apothecary, Kashgar (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Apothecary, Kashgar (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

When, in 1998, I visited Kashgar, the westernmost city of China and an ancient Silk Road caravanserai, the railway from eastern China had not yet been completed and so ancient Kashgar still remained relatively untouched, though the Chinese were moving in, in droves. At the time I befriended a Uigher gentleman (the local, Muslim, Turkic people) and my travelling companion and I spent time with him talking. One evening, after he had learned that I might be interested in a Uigher carpet, he invited my travelling companion and I back to his rooftop home.

When I say rooftop, I mean rooftop. He had a small mud shack at the side of the roof on the top of a flat-topped mud-daub house, and his ‘house’ had interior furnishings that were only bits of cardboard. The rooftop itself was pink adobe that apparently you could fall through during the infrequent rains the oasis town experienced. So there we were, the three of us sitting on his rooftop in the ancient town of Kashgar under a pink evening sky with the distant aspen golden on the hills leading up to the Karakoram pass of the Himalaya Mountains and the smell of bread baking and roasting goat’s heads wafting up from the street. So we sipped bitter tea and talked of the Uigher ‘situation’ (see my travel page on China) and I looked at his rugs. None were outstanding, but one charmed me and my Uigher friend told me how he was trying to earn enough money so that he could get married.

So I bought the rug. I handed over cold hard American cash and my address and the next morning I climbed on the bus to leave town with the foolish realization that I’d probably never see my cash or the rug again.

Imagine my surprise when six weeks later I arrived home and the rug had beaten me there.

The experience left me with a very soft spot for this Muslim man who proved so honest. It also fueled the feelings that led to the writing of Ashes and Light when I read about how the Chinese government used the 911 ‘Muslim crisis’ to round up and execute Uigher men when they rioted over the destructions of their homes.

So just as with Ben and Shiva there are different ways of feeding our souls and so, when the rest of life can suck us dry, we need to undertake those things that fill us up.

The memory of sitting on that rooftop, of my Uigher friend’s utter lack of anything the west would consider household belongings, but his total honesty in the face of being handed a fist-full of American dollars, touched me far more than music or other forms of inspiration ever will. It’s those cross cultural encounters that feed my soul and my muse.

And the fact that my friend may no longer be alive.

Uigher men, Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Uigher men, Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson