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Why Every Writer Needs a Map

Posted on 28 Nov 2018

To celebrate ‘The Writer’s Map’ three leading writers share the maps that have shaped their stories.

All maps are acts of imagination. Whether the map delineates a far-flung terrain or city streets we’ve walked a thousand times, each line, symbol, and shape asks us to envision a particular place, purpose, or direction. For writers, whose craft is to journey through real and imaginative geographies, maps are a dependable source of inspiration. In collecting, studying, or crafting maps, the author may situate a non-fiction text within a physical environment, or create and organise an entirely fictive realm.

Image: p.94 Image caption: Map from 'Treasure Island' by Robert Louis Stevenson. Cassell & Co.: London, 1899. British Library, London.

Robert Macfarlane
“For as long as I can now remember, I have been set dreaming by story-maps both real and make-believe.” Self-professed cartophiliac and “islomaniac” Robert Macfarlane picks out the original map that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Originally drawn to entertain Stevenson’s twelve-year-old stepson on a rainy summer holiday in Scotland, the map later grew into the landscape of his great pirate novel.

“We are now habituated to regard cartography as a science,” says Macfarlane, “but before it was a field science cartography was an art. It was an art that mingled knowledge and supposition, which told stories about places, and in which astonishment, love, memory and fear were part of its projections.”

Image: p.108 Image Caption: Map of Iceland from 'Theatrum Orbis Terrarum' by Abraham Ortelis, Antwerp, 1598.British Library, London.

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris notes the intimate and etymological connection between map-making and storytelling: “It is no accident that ‘plot’ can mean at the same time the arc of a story, or a chart showing the course of a ship, or the tracing of a map…We do these things because we want to know what lies beyond the horizon — in writing terms, what happens next.”

Harris picks out the intricate geographies of Viking myth as a particularly powerful act of map-making. It is a world that defies all natural laws, “a universe suspended in the branches of the great ash, Yggdrasil, with its roots leading down into the Underworld, with rivers linking the nine realms together, the Bifröst – literally the ‘shimmering path’, a rainbow bridge – and the giant serpent Jörmungand encircling the ocean.” On this fantastical stage, the whole Norse oral tradition plays out, with its ongoing struggle against the forces of evil. For Harris, the landscape impresses above all as a metaphor of the human mind “with its conscious and subconscious aspects represented in geographical terms …The human brain is like a globe, divided into hemispheres, and the limbic system a complex chart of secret, hidden pathways.”’

Image caption: World map from the Gerona Beatus, drawn by Ende. 10th-century manuscript, Spain. The proto-atlas centres around major bodies or courses of water, with the Mediterranean as a blue line in the centre, the River Nile bending to the right, and the Red Sea as a vertical red line to the right. Adam, Eve, and the serpent can be seen to the centre-right of the composition. Archivo Capitular, Gerona Cathedral. Photo akg- images/Album/Oronoz.

Sandi Toksvig
Comedian, writer, actor, presenter, producer, and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party, Sandi Toksvig challenges the worn-out truism that women are no good at maps. “Women have been airbrushed out of so much history and that includes the great mapmakers.”

Among Toksvig’s inspirational cartographers are Gertrude Bell; Phyllis Pearsall, who invented A-Z maps; and the tenth-century Spanish nun by the name of Ende, who created an extraordinary world map. “Or how about Shanawdithit, the last known living member of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland, Canada, who died in 1829, perhaps just twenty-eight years old? She drew the most incredible and touching narrative maps in which she plotted the story of her people, their movements and clashes with settlers over many years, all drawn
with great geographical accuracy.”

Words by Eliza Apperly.

Find more in The Writer’s Map, a fascinating anthology of leading writers on the maps they love, the maps they use, and the maps that set them dreaming.

The Writer's Map

An Atlas of Imaginary Lands Huw Lewis-Jones