Cartographic plotting

A few months ago on the blog, I promised to continue my thoughts about leveraging the threat of a busy future and hard deadlines to help overcome the present desire to procrastinate. Obviously, that strategy didn’t result in more frequent posts from me over the intervening months. Hopefully that will change. But whether or not it does, I’m finally back, and settling into my schools here amid the rice fields of Japan. Today I’m here to give an example of leveraging the present – though just for you guys, I’ll lampshade the fact that this promise is really a bait-and-switch for me to [cleverly(?)] segue into a discussion of one of the most fun methods of plotting.

A couple of years back, when I was in college, I took a long class that met in the early evening. Perhaps the native drowsiness of that hour precipitated this tale; or perhaps I am simply making excuses for a professor who seemed like a perfectly nice guy, and toward whom I have always felt a pang of guilt for speaking jocularly of his class. At any rate, I showed up faithfully for class every week, but I am not sure to what extent my professor did. At first I didn’t notice; for the first three-hour session, he merely evidenced a typical professorial predilection for long forays into colorful personal anecdotes. When these began, I soon set down my pen from note-taking. But on the second week of class, it became apparent that our honored instructor’s memory was strained by the exercise of a week, as one-by-one the same anecdotes from the preceding week were trotted out before us again, and brandished with about the same vim and passion as if they were brand new to us. And of course this continued, week after week.

I took very few notes in that course; but I did not simply sit there and sleep (though perhaps I could have, or perhaps even that speculation is an unfair storytelling device to levy against an innocent professor). Instead, I began to draw tiny, squiggling lines on my blank notebook paper; and then they were maps.


Clearly, this landscape sprung into being on its own, with no real-world inspiration; after all, no country is shaped anything like this.

As the maps grew in detail, they began to acquire place-names, towns, and cities. These in turn called up people, and within a week or so I was making pages of notes in class – only very few of them were on the lectures. I produced maps – concrete anchors for story-plotting from which to work, and pages of descriptions of the great feudal clans that inhabited them. A week or two later, I had a detailed outline of a fictional military campaign centering around a single protagonist, set within what was now a densely-populated world.

If this all sounds rather textbook for epic battle fantasy, that’s because it was. After all, this was just a way of entertaining myself in class. My point is that a map can function as a low-intensity, low-stress way of generating not just inspiration, but whole plot outlines. They are easy to make without prior planning, and once made, they create a number of useful constraints on a writer, provide a set of specific details, and suggest places where a plot might naturally go. It is worth mentioning that I shamelessly lifted the title for this post out of a chapter in Tom Shippey’s book The Road to Middle-Earth, on Tolkien’s great work, a work which, as Shippey and Tolkien’s son Christopher both reveal, relied heavily on maps for its structure and inspiration.

One final addendum: I have not exactly quoted Shippey’s title; rather, I have formed one that paraphrases, or is inspired by borrowing from it. Shippey describes an analogous writing process, which could probably be the subject of its own post, as calquing: the copying of a thing, such as a culture, and its reworking into a fictional equivalent. I don’t want to get too in-depth on that here, but this is of course something that can be just as easily done with fictional cartography as with anything else. If you take a look at the maps I’ve given here (some of which were drawn in the above-mentioned class), you may be able to see how they borrow inspiration from other places.


A work still in progress. Clearly not inspired by anything real.


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