The Writer’s Map

Portolan of Granada by Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis, 1525, from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

A beautiful illustrated book from Thames and Hudson is always a delight, but if that was all The Writers Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands was, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. It’s a map to, by, with, from, and for writers.

The maps themselves are truly glorious and transport you across space and time – from the Mappa Mundi to the moon landings. They lead you into other worlds – from Atlantis to Westeros. They chart lands we’ve loved since childhood – from Neverland to Narnia. They were written by colonizers and colonized peoples – from explorers plotting portolans to Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk woman in Newfoundland. I defy you not to get lost in this book for hours, if not days, exclaiming over old favourites and new ones.

Map by Shanawdithit telling the story of European violence against her Beothuk people in Newfoundland, 1915
from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

The most important thing I took from all this is the connection between map and story. Joanne Harris reminds readers that a plot can be both the way the story goes, and the marking of the journey. Charting it, mapping it out, is the beginning of the telling. She quotes Joan Aiken: “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it.”

Some writers need a map to work out how the story is going to happen and how to make sure it works. Can the heroine get over the mountains and down to the sea in two days on foot, for instance? As Tolkien put it, “if you’re going to have a complicated story, you must work to a map.” Stevenson started Treasure Island by drawing a map to cheer up his stepson on a rainy holiday. You don’t have to draw your own: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s partner gave him Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands to get him writing again.

Part of Tolkien’s own sketch map of Middle Earth, from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

The mapmakers faced the same distractions and trials that other writers do. Ursula le Guin, the navigator of the sea of story, mapped Earthsea “on butcher’s paper in a house full of children.” Miraphora Mina, who made the Marauder’s Map for the Harry Potter films, had to make multiple copies for different stages of filming; getting your props burned, dowsed, or otherwise destroyed was something she just had to accept.

And in mapmaking, as in storytelling, what you leave out is as important as what you put in. The art is in the selectivity. This doesn’t mean that all maps should be like the blank ocean chart in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. It is more, as Isabel Greenberg puts it, that you need to leave room for the unexplored. Carroll (in Sylvia and Bruno Concluded) also who gave Borges the idea of one-to-one scale map that would cover the earth and block out the sun.

Yet in storytelling, as in mapmaking, what you put in is as important as what you leave out. As Sandi Toksvig reminds us, the women got left out too often. The indomitable “queen of the desert” Gertrude Bell wrote and mapped Arabia. Phyllis Pearsall wrote the London A to Z and self-published it when nobody else would.

Constellations of illustrators and writers fill these pages with ideas. Robert McFarlane, self-confessed “cartomaniac and islomaniac,” is one of them. He draws a distinction between grid-maps (modern cartography?) that gridlock, and story-maps (older cartography?) that chart memory and culture.

Ursula le Guin’s once asked “are Americans afraid of dragons?” since they seemed to be afraid of reading fiction. Editor Huw Lewis Jones takes up the “here be dragons” aspect of mapping to conclude:

“Maps remind us that there is so much more out there, and so much more at stake.”

What more could you hope to achieve your writing?

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