Be­fore you set off, you’ll need a map…

Three top au­thors on the joy of chart­ing the non-ex­is­tent, from Razkavia’s cas­tle to the gar­dens of Black Swan Green

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - COVER STORY - DAV I D MITCHELL

The book that first set me on my way was Water­ship Down by Richard Adams. I was nine years old when I read it. Bask­ing in its af­ter­glow, I plot­ted an epic novel about a small group of fugi­tive ot­ters – one of whom was clair­voy­ant – who get driven from their home by the rav­ages of build­ing work, and swim up the River Sev­ern to its source in Wales, where they es­tab­lish an egal­i­tar­ian com­mu­nity called Ot­ter­topia.

As any mega-sell­ing child author can tes­tify, you can’t be­gin un­til you’ve got the map right. So I traced the course of the River Sev­ern from my dad’s road at­las on to a Sel­lotaped-to­gether multi-sheet of A4. Along the loop­ing river I drew woods, hills and marshes in the style of the maps in The Lord of the Rings: blobs with sticks for trees, bumps for hills and tufts of marshes. What about to­ponyms, though? Should I use ex­ist­ing hu­man names, or make up Ot­ter-ese words for places like Worces­ter or Up­ton-on-Sev­ern? Would ot­ters have words for mo­tor­ways or fac­to­ries or bridges?

Why would they? Why wouldn’t they? Never mind, I’ll sort that out later. I spent hours on that map, plot­ting the ot­ters’ progress with a dot­ted red line and en­joy­ing how non­cha­lant I’d be at school the day after my un­prece­dented Booker Prize vic­tory. I’m sure I man­aged at least half a page of the novel be­fore I got dis­tracted.

Not long after, I bor­rowed the Earth­sea books by Ur­sula Le Guin from the hal­lowed Great Malvern Li­brary. My literary de­but was now go­ing to be set in a vast, planet-sized fan­tasy ar­chi­pel­ago. (Even that word is shifty and en­chanted, some­times pro­nounced “Archie-pelago” and some­times “Arky-pelago”, even by the same per­son.) Wiz­ards, epic voy­ages, un­der­ground labyrinths, talk­ing drag­ons, lan­guages, rings of power, cos­mopoli­tan ports, more prim­i­tive so­ci­eties to­wards the edges… I could just feel how amaz­ing this book was go­ing to be! All I had to do to get started was draw the map. This time, I asked my mum for an A1 sheet of thick car­tridge pa­per, mounted with mask­ing tape on to one of her heavy artist’s draw­ing boards. I ran my fin­ger­tips over the pris­tine ex­panses of parch­ment­thick pa­per, drool­ing over its in­fin­ity of pos­si­ble ar­chi­pel­a­gos. My job was sim­ply to sum­mon one up to the sur­face with my Berol felt-tip pens.

I spent days on my fan­tasy is­lands, some as vast as Aus­tralia, oth­ers as small as Rock­all. Who lives here? Peace­ful goat-herders or raiders and pi­rates? Traders or wiz­ards? Norse-like hairy folk or dark-skinned Poly­ne­sian-like peo­ple? Halflings, hu­mans, orcs or elves or what? As I had hal­f­re­alised with the ot­ters, I found you can’t name a place with­out think­ing about the lan­guage and world view of the peo­ple do­ing the nam­ing. My map fi­nally fin­ished, I got as far as writ­ing page three or four of Vol­ume One be­fore get­ting bogged down, but re­ally, it was the map that was the novel, the ex­er­cise in world-build­ing, the bit that showed what I didn’t have the stamina or tech­nique to pull off, not yet.

These early maps were also what we now call a dis­place­ment ac­tiv­ity. As long as I was busy dream­ing of to­pog­ra­phy, I didn’t have to get my hands dirty with the me­chan­ics of plot and char­ac­ter. Nor could I fail to pro­duce my mas­ter­piece if I hadn’t ac­tu­ally be­gun. While none of the nov­els I’ve pub­lished as a writer have maps in them, my note­books are lit­tered with them. Scenes (or suites of scenes) need space to hap­pen in, and what those spa­ces look like, and what is in them can de­ter­mine how the ac­tion un­folds. They can even give you ideas for what un­folds. This is why map­mak­ing and “stages­ketch­ing” can be nec­es­sary as­pects of writ­ing.

If I’m de­scrib­ing a char­ac­ter’s as­cent of a moun­tain, I need to know what he or she will find on the way up. Most of this in­for­ma­tion won’t get into the text, at least not di­rectly, but I need to know. So ei­ther I use a real moun­tain that I’ve climbed of­ten enough to keep in my mem­ory, or I go hunt­ing for one in the right area on Google Earth, or I draw my own. It’s very sketchy but that’s OK: you can work with sketchy. What you can’t work with is a blank. My moun­tain and its trail were changed sub­stan­tially by the time my 2010 novel The Thou­sand Au­tumns of Ja­cob de Zoet was pub­lished, but the scrib­bled, on­lykind-of-a-map – done in a café in Sk­ib­bereen while my car was be­ing ser­viced – was enough to catal­yse an ex­change in my imag­i­na­tion be­tween the moun­tain­side I al­ready had and the moun­tain­side I needed. Much artis­tic cre­ation is this ping-pong ex­change: not be­tween Noth­ing and Some­thing, but be­tween Some­thing OK and Some­thing Bet­ter.

Later in the story, a woman plots her es­cape from a moun­tain­top monastery of baby-mak­ing, baby-sac­ri­fic­ing, soul-ex­tract­ing crypto-Shinto monks. (Long story.) Again, this series of scenes would have been im­pos­si­ble to “vi­su­alise” if I didn’t know the lay­out of the build­ings. So I dredged through my mem­ory for tem­ples and shrines

I’d vis­ited in re­mote Ja­pan, trans­planted an amal­gam of these on to a hid­den cas­tle I once climbed up to in Okayama Pre­fec­ture, and came up with a sketch. It won’t be win­ning any awards for draughts­man­ship, and ended up be­ing scaf­fold­ing for some­thing more pre­cise (which I can’t now find), but this first pass at a pic­ture-map of my monastery let me work out where ev­ery­thing was in re­la­tion to ev­ery­thing else.

Also in my note­books are maps of key lo­ca­tions in books whose plot sub­se­quently changed course, leav­ing these places un­vis­ited and silted up, like an oxbow lake. My novel Cloud At­las has a sec­tion set on the Big Is­land of Hawaii in a fu­ture where tech­nol­ogy has re­gressed to first-mil­len­nium lev­els. Only one small repub­lic of tech­nocrats who call them­selves Pre­scients still keep the flame of 22nd-cen­tury sci­ence alive. Orig­i­nally, I had in­tended to nar­rate this part of the novel from a Pre­scient point of view, and set­tled upon an is­land in the Aleu­tian chain as their home. Us­ing a method I pi­o­neered when at work on my ot­ter mas­ter­piece, I trans­posed a map of Pre­science – the Pre­scients’ small city-port

– on to a real is­land, some­where off Alaska. My map of the port, to my

As a nav­i­ga­tional tool, the Mappa Mundi is a dead loss; as a map of the mind it’s peer­less

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