Thursday Writing Prompt No. 21

Continental Divide sign

Crossing the Continental Divide, with the help of a trusty map.

This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt focuses on setting. It’s raining outside as I write this, and I don’t particularly feel like doing any serious work on my novel or any other projects, so I’m going to indulge myself in a little play. I want you to try this, too. We’re going to draw maps. Maybe this isn’t really a writing prompt per se, but it’s definitely a writing tool worth exploring.

I have a real problem with my novel-in-progress because I need to describe a place that I’ve made up. I can’t really see it in my mind well enough to describe it, and because it’s a big place, I’ve already lost track of what I wrote in earlier chapters. What I need to do is to make a map for myself. I need this for two reasons: one, so I can see what I need to be describing, and two, so I don’t contradict myself during the writing process.

So, this week’s exercise is about mapmaking. The best way to go about this is to simply sketch it out on a sheet of paper. Don’t worry about getting your measurements accurate at this point. The  purpose of the map is for your reference so you can keep track of the space you’re describing. In my example, I’ve made up an island that has an extensive building on it The building has many levels, and some are underground. Some open up to the outside, some don’t. There’s at least two harbors on the island, and a lighthouse. I’ve already managed to confuse my characters, some of whom are still lost, wandering aimlessly in some of those corridors. Poor fellows!

Now, you don’t need anything except plain paper, but if you’d rather use a grid of some sort, I recommend Kevin MacLeod’s website Incompetech, where you can download some ready-made graph paper files in PDF format to help you along. They’re free, but a donation would be a nice way of thanking him for his work. You can draw maps on your computer or tablet, too, but at this point, let’s not get carried away. Paper won’t distract you as much as the computer and you’ll be more focused on the task instead of picking fonts for your map’s legend. Trust me on this.

Now, take a location from your story or story-to-be and draw a map. Remember, scale and accuracy are not important on the first drawing, you just need to get the relationship between places settled in your mind. Does the building have a railway behind it? Does it have multiple entrances? Is there a park next to it? Is the police station three blocks away? You get the idea. Draw the buildings as simple rectangles, and write in them. You can make the map pretty later, just as you go back and edit a story. Keep your map next to you as you write, and pencil in facts as you go.

If your story or a scene takes place inside a home, a simple floor plan sketch can help. Is your character’s kitchen at the front or back of her house, for example? For that matter, you can find floor plans online and use them to help “build” your character’s house. There’s really no use having Jane look out her kitchen window and seeing a guy breaking into her car if it’s parked out front on the street and her kitchen looks out over her backyard. Your readers will notice inconsistencies like this, and it detracts from the story.

So, let’s get some paper and colored pencils or pens (oh, at last a real reason to visit the stationery store and buy more Sharpies!) and play get to work.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Writing Prompt No. 21

  1. This is a wonderful idea to help organize thoughts. However, I do know of an author, Terry Goodkind, who absolutely detests maps. In his opinion it shouldn’t matter what the land his story is set in looks like on paper, it just matters how they interact with the landscape. In a way, making a map is restricting. If you revise it in later works it looks odd…”oh suddenly 12 more cities popped up on my “world map of _____” But great idea, 🙂

    • Well, maps don’t work for everyone, so they shouldn’t be something that you force yourself to use if it’s not working for you. I’m just getting to the point that I’m confusing myself, so I need some kind of visual guide to keep myself organized while I’m writing. It’s probably not going to go in the finished piece, anyway. But I’ve worked in graphic design long enough that I’ve grown accustomed to having visual references in addition to my notes. Thanks for reading!

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