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 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