Writing Excuses 11.Bonus-03: Some Books Have Maps in the Front, with Maurice Broaddus, Mur Lafferty, and James Sutter
Key Points: A map is often the first step in worldbuilding. Maps help with blocking a story, because you know how to get from A to B. Borders, resources, maps help you understand the setting. How do you make a map? Cheat! Use an existing map (research), or even parts of maps. Take a look at Google Maps/Earth, and the pattern of things, then mash several parts together. Make coastlines shaky, rivers flow downhill, and so forth. Different cultures put cities together differently! Technology like a rotary sprinkler can shape farms. Small towns and mountainsides have a different shape, too. Cities grow for a reason, and roads. Now, put a map in the front of your book!
[Note: I may have confused Maurice and James below. My apologies if I have mislabeled someone, I had trouble separating the voices.]
[Howard] Season 11, Bonus Episode Three.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Some Books Have Maps in the Front.
[Dan] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And I couldn’t think of a better title.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And we have three wonderful, beautiful guests with us today. Maurice Broaddus, James Sutter, and Mur Lafferty. And we also have this vast, wonderful live audience. We’re here at GenCon, so…
[Howard] We’re here at the… We’re here at the GenCon Writers Symposium, which I just need to plug, and say this is awesome. I’ve met more of my favorite writers here that I think at any other event I’ve been to. It’s wonderful.
[Dan] Yeah. Last year was my first year, and it instantly became my favorite writing track of any con that I go to.
[Howard] But enough with the commercial.
[Howard] Let’s talk about our guests. So we… Each of you take a few seconds and introduce yourself. Tell us who you are.
[Maurice] My name’s Maurice Broaddus. I am an urban fantasy writer. At least I was for the Knights of Breton Court trilogy. I’m also apparently a steampunk author, since I have a steampunk novella coming out in March called Buffalo Soldier. And all points in between.
[James] I’m James Sutter. I am one of the co-creators of the Pathfinder role-playing game and the creative director of the forthcoming Starfinder role-playing game. I’ve also written a couple of novels, Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine. I write for comics, video games, games, all sorts of stuff.
[Mur] My name is Mur Lafferty, and I’ve been podcasting longer than these two guys.
[Howard] Nope, it’s true. That [sick burns sticks].
[Maurice] Yes. The headband is to keep the mic from dropping.
[Mur] Right! That’s right. No, I do a podcast and I also write. My new book, Six Wakes, is coming out in January.
[Dan] Awesome. So, we got these three fine folks together and we said, “What are you really excited about? What do you want to talk about?” They said, “Maps!” It was actually Mur who said, “Let’s talk about maps.” So I’m going to throw this at you…
[Dan] And say, “Why do you want to talk about maps?”
[Mur] Well, it’s because before this, James and I were sitting in the Green Room and we were talking about maps in the front of books. I said I have a problem… My weakness in writing is description. The idea of actually creating a fantasy world with my own created cities scares the heck out of me. I was thinking… We were talking about how do you contact… How do you talk to an artist? How much information do you give them? And that kind of thing. So it was on my mind when we came in. So the whole… The idea of giving an artist… Talking with an artist to talk about building a city or building a world is suddenly very attractive to me.
[Dan] Cool. Awesome. Well, I’m excited to talk about this because it suddenly, when she suggested it, it occurred to Howard and I that we’d never really talked about maps on the podcast in the eight years we’ve been doing this. So… Now we have a chance to talk about maps.
[James] We could talk about… We were talking in the Green Room about how you… If you’re a pro author who’s going to come out with some fantasy novel and you want to hire a professional cartographer to make a map for you. Or if, in the case of… I’ve done a bazillion map orders for game products. Adventures and setting books and whatnot. But we could also talk about how you draw a believable map for your fantasy world in order to give that to the cartographer. Because they’re going to work with whatever you have.
[Dan] Let’s start with the very first step. How do you know that your book needs a map? Or is it just because you want a map? So, doggone, let’s put one in there.
[Maurice] Well, for me, for like my most recent project, while they were in the Green Room, I was apparently in a bar. I don’t know what you guys were doing.
[Howard] You win.
[Mur] You should have texted us.
[Maurice] Yeah, right. So, but my most recent project, because I am doing a steampunk novel and I have the worst sense of direction. So I will lose myself in my own world. I’ll lose myself walking from here to the convention center. So I have a terrible sense of direction. So for me, it’s important that I do… Start with a map, a map is like the first part of my worldbuilding in any given exercise.
[Howard] One of the things that I found is that any time I’m blocking a portion of the story where timing is important, I have to know if it is possible for them to get from point A to point B in that time. There have been about a million movies filmed in New York City where there’s a chase scene, and you realize, “Oh. Those two things don’t actually connect.” That’s… You can’t get from here to there.
[Maurice] I used to be a big fan of 24…
[Maurice] Until I went to California…
[Maurice] And realized that I couldn’t get from the airport to my hotel in the first commercial break. There was no way you could get around that city that fast.
[James] You can’t get there in 24 hours.
[Howard] So. Well, and there’s the… I don’t need to relate that story, it’s too long and it’s not mine. The fact that so much of what goes on in the books that we write, in the stories we tell, involves movement means that I need to know something about how people are moving. Whether they’re moving between planets or moving between rooms, I want to know what’s involved.
[Maurice] There’s also, I mean, the old saying geography is destiny. So when you’re creating your world, it can be really useful to know… National borders tend to run along natural features, like mountains or rivers or oceans. So I think knowing the environment that your culture is in, knowing the resources they have really informs the characters of the people. If you’re this country, if your elves are from a landlocked nation, they’re going to be very different than your port-dwelling sea dwarves. Dwarves don’t float very well, so that’s probably a very short-lived nation.
[Maurice] But like there actually is a lot to be said for letting the map some ways come first.
[Mur] I was… Many, many, many, many years ago, I’m talking like 15 or more, I went to Dragon Con and got to sit in a writing talk by Tracy Hickman. He was talking about the writing bible he had just created for his new book. He said he started with rolling glaciers over the land. That’s how he started with his map. That fascinated me. That still fascinates me, although I don’t know enough about geographic stuff and continental drift to follow those glacial movements.
[Howard] We’re writing the… Well, we’ve written the Planet Mercenary role-playing game and one of the things that I wanted to come up with is star system maps. I realized that if the maps were all to the same scale, people would get upset. If the maps… Their scale didn’t make sense internally, they’d get upset. I looked at a map of our solar system, and I was like, “There is no way to put all these things on one page and have it meaningful!” Then I found a map where someone had drawn our solar system on a logarithmic scale, where one astronomical unit is one and 10 astronomical units is the next and then 100. I looked at that and realized, “Oh, my gosh. I can get from Earth to Pluto in one page. Even though Pluto’s not a planet, I can get there.”
[Howard] I looked at that and I gave that to the guy who was doing the maps and he said, “I’m not sure I can do that map?” Then I handed him just a sheet of logarithmic paper. I said, “Does this help?” “Oh! Oh, that makes perfect sense.” We ran it past some gamers and they were like, “Well, I… Oh. Oh, it’s log base 10. Well, okay.” I’m playing to the crowd. The gamers are like, “Oh, I love that. I love it so much.”
[Mur] Did you actually try to sell the game to the crowd?
[Mur] Well done.
[Dan] Playing to the crowd is our whole job.
[James] You just need a logarithmic battle map, right, for your miniatures?
[Dan] Now one of the… I kind of joked about it earlier, but I do think that FU, I just want a map in my book is actually a really good reason to put a map in your book. James made this point earlier that there is an entire genre, and it’s in fantasy, in which what is your genre? It’s books that have maps in the front. I love those. That’s one of the first things I look for when I pick up a fantasy book, is does this have a map in the front, because I love looking at the maps.
[Dan] Now, I want to ask some more questions later, but right now we get to pause for the book of the week which is one of Maurice’s. Tell us about it.
[Maurice] The book is The Voices of Martyrs. It’s my first short story collection.
[Maurice] It’s coming out in about a month or so from Rosarium Publishing. So it’s going to cover the span of a lot of my fantasy and my science fiction, some of my horror stories…
[Dan] So a little bit of everything.
[Maurice] A little bit of everything.
[Howard] When does that come out?
[Maurice] Ideally, in about a month or so.
[Dan] A month or so from now? August…
[Dan] Meaning it’ll be out in September.
[Maurice] September, hopefully.
[Howard] September of 2016. Oh, no problem. We’ll sit on this episode for years, I’m sure.
[Dan] This will only come out when it has to. So…
[Dan] Now I want to ask, and I’m going to… I’m going to say something highly heretical here. One of the maps that I simultaneously love and hate at the same time is actually Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth. Because Mordor has this really obnoxious right-angle mountain range that I’ve always just thought was oh, that’s just a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing putting a stupid looking mountain range in there, because Mordor is a square apparently. Maybe that’s an entirely reasonable thing. But my question for you is, when an author who is a writer, and not a cartographer sits down to sketch out their crappy little map, what are some things that we can do so that when it goes to an artist, that it actually looks good.
[Maurice] Well, I can tell you for me, I cheated. I mean, that’s…
[Dan] No, that’s great.
[Maurice] My rule of thumb for writing, cheat whenever you can.
[Dan] Tell us how to cheat, too.
[Maurice] So my steam punk novel I’m doing now, takes place in Indianapolis, but it’s turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. So I went to the archives, we have archives here, and I said, “I need a map of what the city looked like when it was first founded.” They dug one up for me.
[Dan] That’s awesome.
[Maurice] So I saw the map, I could make my changes on there, the changes I needed for the story. After that, I’m like, “Oh, shoot. I’m a genius.”
[Howard] Oh. Going to a place where a professional researcher can dig you up a map is the opposite of cheating. That’s like actual research.
[Maurice] Tomato, tomato.
[Howard] No, that is awesome. I… In building some future cities, I would grab maps of New York, and just look at the patterns of things and think, “Well, okay. I’ll hatch things like that, and see how it works.”
[James] Google Maps and Google Earth are incredible resources, because you can zoom into whatever scale you need. You can also look at historical maps and whatnot if you’re writing something different, but even just getting a sense of how real cities evolve and how different cities… Like if you look at Salt Lake City, a planned city, versus Boston, an organic city, or even moreover, European cities. Like if you want a crazy fantasy city, goes zoom in on the Vatican or someplace that’s in Europe where everything’s been building on top of itself for thousands of years. You can just zoom in and take parts of those things. You probably don’t want to copy at wholesale, because then somebody will be like, “Why is your novel in Athens? Like, you renamed this, but this is just Athens. I live here.” But you can certainly take portions. If you mash up part of Athens and part of Rio de Janeiro, squish those together, nobody’s going to recognize that.
[Howard] Unless you leave the Cristo Redentor.
[James] Yeah, exactly. But then other things, like hold your pen real tight while doing coastlines, and that shaky hand will make them look more realistic…
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[James] Rather than being smooth.
[Dan] That’s how they make them look good.
[James] Then think about the geography. Make sure your rivers flow downhill. Start… Rivers should start in the mountains and flow together, not apart, except for deltas, which are… Dark magic.
[James] But like… But in general, water…
[Howard] Also sand.
[James] Yes. Water flows together, right.
[James] Like the number of maps that we get for Pathfinder from well-meaning writers who are like drawing here is this river. This river goes from this ocean up to these mountains and then down to this other ocean. Like, even just a basic look at how things are put together on a real map can help a lot.
[Dan] I want to hit real quick just again one of the points you just made about looking… Making sure to look at maps of cities from different cultures. The one that I immediately thought of, I used to live in Mexico. In Mexico, they… A city is split into many different barrios. Each barrio has a completely different plan. Like the blocks are a different size, and the streets are a different width, and they’re all set at a different angle, so it looks like this… If you look at the entire city, it’s this bizarre patchwork. Then you get into each one, and it’s… It’s a very unique way of building a city as compared to what we’re more accustomed to in the US. So look at the way different cultures build their cities as well.
[Dan] Let’s talk about maps now that are not about cities. What are some of the other things that we can do to make a map of a countryside and a mountain range really stand out?
[Howard] We’re all looking at Mur.
[Mur] Oh, that’s a great idea.
[James] I don’t want to just keep chattering.
[Howard] You have the smart face on.
[Mur] Oh, is that what that… Oh. Okay. Well, the thing is I have not written a book that needed a map of the countryside, but I think a neat… Like we’ve already said, having a basic knowledge of physics and how nature works, you’d think you would need to say that, but you probably do. Really, why is everybody looking at me?
[Mur] Maurice, go!
[Howard] When I… Flying here, looking out over the Kansas’s or whatever…
[Howard] The Dakotas. I’m not sure what it is…
[Dan] East Kansas and West Kansas.
[Howard] We were flying over. But…
[Dan] I love that the guy from Utah is throwing [shade] at other states.
[Howard] [inaudible… One of the…]
[Howard] Well, literally, we were above them. There are fields that are grids…
[Mur] You fly above Kansas to get here?
[Howard] There are fields that are grids, and there are fields that are round. For the longest time, I looked at those and just could not make sense of why is the field round, that seems like the least efficient. But if you get down on the ground, it’s because there’s this cool rotary sprinkler thing that will just roll around the field and just do the irrigation. That kind of thing, where there’s this simple piece of technology that was developed I think 50 or 60 years ago which is this rotating valve changed the shape of the way the fields look from above. I don’t have a book that uses this, but that kind of thing is crazy.
[Mur] Well, actually I did think of something.
[Maurice] Yeah, go for it.
[Mur] Thank you, Maurice. The fact that I grew up in a very tiny town in the mountains of North Carolina. We had one stoplight. I have trouble in cities. It’s embarrassing. Like the whole… Everyone’s like, “New York’s on a grid. The avenues go one way, and blah blah blah.” I’m like, “I don’t get that.” I get there’s a light and you tell me where to go based on the stoplight. You tell me where to turn based on which field. I know it sounds very, very rural, but that’s how it is. The roads have to go up into the mountains and they have to go back and forth. I think you need to understand that when it comes to small towns or mountainous climbing that if you just go straight up the mountain, it’s not going to work. If you’ve got a whole bunch of stoplights in a town of 2000 people, that’s not going to work.
[James] I think the number one thing to remember when you’re mapping anything from a city to an entire continent is that people settle where they settle for a reason. So there’s always got to be something there. It’s like you look at where big cities are, and they’re at… They’re on sheltered coves, they’re at river mouths because water is always hugely important, or they… Maybe they’re in the middle of what seems like nowhere, but there’s some resource there, be it oil or mining or whatever. You gotta know what the draw is and why people decided to stop there instead of keep moving. Then, your cities and your civilization moves out from that point. Everybody wants to be the closest to whatever the good thing is that they got there. So your city probably is densest and oldest next to the port, or on that really defensible cliff overlooking the river, or whatever, and then spreads out from there more or less organically.
[Howard] I like asking the question, what… When they settled there, what’s the thing that they found that the other folks didn’t have. Because once you know that they’ve got something that other people didn’t have, they’re going to start building roads between those two places. Depending on society, those roads may be contested, there may be bandits, there may be wars, there may be a really good reason for the road to go all the way around the mountain instead of through the valley.
[James] Also, don’t be afraid to put multiple bio… Ecosystems and bioregions, even regardless of the scale you’ve got. Like, you might say, now there are no… The Pacific Northwest is trees. But you don’t want to have just one giant forest, because that’s not what it looks like if you zoom in, no matter how far in you go, there are prairies, there are little lakes, there are all sorts of things other than just trees. So anytime you’re painting with a really broad brush, be aware that you’re probably losing a lot of interesting detail for no reason.
[Mur] Can I just say that everything you guys just said is really good Settlers of Catan strategy?
[Mur] I’m just saying.
[Howard] Welcome to GenCon.
[Dan] This is a dual-purpose podcast. Awesome. So. We need to stop. We… But we do have one last little bit, that James is going to give us some homework to do.
[James] Yeah. I’d say, take two of your favorite books, and take a big idea from each of them, whether that’s part of the setting or a character or whatever, and mash them up so you get something new.
[Dan] Awesome. Well, thank you very much. Thank you to Mur and James and Maurice. We loved having you on the show. Everyone else, you are out of excuses. Now go write.