We’re just getting back into the swing of things here at TGNA, but just because we haven’t been here doesn’t mean we haven’t been elsewhere! TGNAers have blogs and social media accounts across the web (as does TGNA itself), and we’ve been creating a lot of great content over the past few months. Check us out elsewhere to find out what we’ve been up to, and be sure to let us know what YOU’ve been doing in the comments!
I may have a little bit of a thing about maps. Real or fictional, I’ll happily spend hours of my time studying a really good map. I collect tourist-guide street maps and stick them on my bedroom walls. Histories of placenames and routeways fascinate me. And when I open a book to find a map inside it, whatever the genre, I’m delighted.
Fortunately I’m not alone, and lots of writers provide maps in their books, especially fantasy writers. We’ve all seen the likes of Tolkien’s maps (pictured above), huge things that fold out from the backs of the books, or those of G.R.R. Martin covering multiple pages, but it’s not only epic fantasies that include maps; some of my early introductions to literary cartography came from The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh (below). They are nothing like the intricate, detailed works required for high fantasies, with their cities and nations and continents, but they always helped a landscape feel real to me. And a well-drawn map of any sort is a work of art in itself.
I think those early favourites are the main reason I always draw maps for my stories. I don’t imagine that most of my maps will ever make it onto a frontispiece, should my stories ever reach publication; in fact, most of what I write probably doesn’t require a map for the sake of the readers (I don’t write a whole lot of high fantasy). But I make them anyway, partly because (as already established) I have a thing about maps, and partly because they’re actually a great way of establishing a good solid setting.
I like to think I’m fairly good at choreographing characters, in that I rarely forget whether a character is sitting or standing, or who crossed the room or picked up their cup of tea, but I’m less good at keeping my locations consistent. Nothing annoys me more than writing the perfect scene and then realising that the whole thing’s impossible because I’ve already established that they couldn’t possibly see the river from the window. So I draw maps. Not usually of entire worlds or countries in the style of Tolkien, just sketch maps of an area, or a town, or the floorplan of a house. It helps me get to know the place my story is set, and I always think that if an author knows their setting well, then the reader will feel that they do too. It also helps me think about my world-building (whether for a fictional world, or a fictional place within the real world) in ways I might not otherwise. For example, positioning cities in places where it actually makes sense for cities to be (e.g. on a river or an inlet of the coast, or at an important strategic border point), or if drawing a street plan of a town, thinking about the history of the place; what was it originally built for and how is that reflected in the layout?
I draw my maps by hand, and for that I’d say that one of the most helpful resources is simply actual maps. Real or fictional, modern or historic, the more familiar you are with them, the easier it will be to create your own. But there are also any number of programmes and guides to help, and map-making software for creating them online, which would probably be very useful if you were planning something more on the scale of Tolkien (I would say ‘I’m sure he’d have used them if they’d existed’ but I’m not convinced he would, since he was, by all accounts, not much of a fan of new technologies). I was planning on trying to compose a helpful list of resources, but then I found that The WorldBuilding School has already composed such a list (some are free and some you have to pay for). Another good place to visit for advice and resources is the Cartographers’ Guild Forum. If anyone has any other great sites or software that they use for this, do leave it in the comments!
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
– Anton Chekhov
This theory of Chekhov’s above, known simply as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently, as I begin the final edits of my current manuscript. That’s partly because I’m the kind of writer who puts everything down in a first draft and then streamlines later – I write every scene, description and piece of dialogue that occurs to me, so editing involves cutting a lot of unnecessary stuff. It’s also partly because my manuscript contains a literal Chekhov’s gun, which has become a great example of a detail that works very hard in my story.
In this case, there is an actual gun that gets mentioned in passing early on. It’s not a prop for the main plot, but it keeps appearing in small ways until, yes, eventually it is fired. But the early mentions aren’t just foreshadowing for the firing; by acquiring the gun, my protagonist makes a discovery that is crucial to the plot, and it becomes something of a symbolic object. The truth is, I never intended it to be very significant in the beginning. There was a rifle, because it made sense for one of my characters to own one, and it enabled the crucial discovery moment I mentioned above. Then it became something awkward; I’d introduced it and didn’t quite know what to do with it any more. I kept having little moments of ‘but wait, she was holding the rifle – what happened to it?’
And that is the point at which you either have to make a detail work or cut it altogether. I made it work by realising that I had to take Chekhov’s advice – my gun needed to go off. In the end, it more than worked, because realising that gave me a great idea for how to end the entire story. But that’s what I believe this quote is really about. It’s not about cutting all your details and description; it’s about making all your details and description do something for the story. On our MA course, we had a tutor who compared stories to racehorses, with every muscle carefully honed to propel that horse forward. Excess fat, distracting baggage, flapping manes – all those things slow the horse down and need to be dealt with.
For someone like me, who tends to over-write things, it’s a useful exercise to pare things down to basics. Part of my editing process now involves going through every chapter, working out what is absolutely necessary and what is not. Which item in the bedroom is the one that really tells you something vital about the character whose room it is? Which line of description includes a casual mention of something that’s going to crop up again later? Those are the ones that stay. Then there are the ones, like my rifle, that are being wasted without me even realising it. With a bit of tidying up and a new importance down the line, they’re suddenly foreshadowing. The rest, though, can probably go.
Now, I don’t really believe in hard rules when it comes to writing, and any advice that includes the words ‘absolutely must’ should be taken with a pinch of salt in my opinion. Sometimes a detail is there merely to help us visualise a scene, and that’s also important. But it’s always worth thinking about what a small thing is or isn’t doing for your story – and, more importantly, what it could be doing instead.