Mapping It Out

Some time ago, the early Terry Pratchett Discworld novel Sourcery (1988) featured a quip early in the text that read: “This book has no map. If this bothers you, feel free to go and draw one of your own”. I remember being so pleased Pratchett wrote that, because it meant my mind was free to imagine where things were and make features as important or trivial as I wanted.

When the Discworld was eventually mapped and drawn and catalogued and defined and filmed and all the rest, it was as if that magical butterfly of my imagination was euthanised and stuck to a board with a ruddy great pin through it. I’m sure many lepidopterists are keen to have a record of a beautiful butterfly to study, but frankly I’d rather butterflies were left to fly free, since that’s what they’re best at doing. I’m not sure Mother Nature really intended them to be stuck with a pin and kept in a drawer.

I’m not sure my imagination benefits from being mollycoddled.

These days, a map in a book of fantasy seems to be mandatory, the lack of one perhaps considered heresy, or at least discourteous to readers. I’ve been asked a few times if I’d draw maps for writers, but I’m loathe to take such work because a) I hate doing art commissions; and b) I think maps in books are contrary to allowing the reader’s imagination to roam free. If a writer needs a map to ensure their geography is consistent and authentic within their writing process, then fine. Spelling it out to the reader with an illustration included in the book just feels like another form of excessive description. Tolkien had a map, but then the map was in the story. More maps came later, and while some maps can help clarify details, such as how arduous and lengthy a trip is from one place to another, the reality is so many maps in fantasy books are either superfluous or too-much-information or both.

Cover art can sometimes be a bit of a giveaway about how certain characters might appear, but maps and props and all manner of other things can—at least for me—dampen my mind’s eye and quell my imagination’s fire a bit. It just seems a bit of a shame. My imagination is special to me. It’s one of the few things I still have. It needs exercise and expansion, not suppression and frustration. To a writer, the scale of a mountain range or the breadth of a river might mean a great deal. World building is an art as well as a science and often such a tremendous amount of work needs showing off, but to the reader, does all of that really matter, especially when it’s already mentioned or observed by one or more of the characters in the text? When does it become too much information? Some books I’ve read seem to go overboard with adjectives, descriptions, outlines and illustrations. All I’m left with is wondering how one character is going to react to another, because that’s all my imagination has left to work on. The rest has been done for me. Ho hum.

To me, less is often more. Don’t give me a map. Don’t show every character on the cover art. Give me a hint here, a shade there, and let my imagination colour in the rest.

That will be a book I will appreciate more.

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