#amwriting: world building: maps and the mythology of history

The world Ortelius' Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

The world Ortelius’ Typus Orbis Terrarum, first published 1564

After years of work on the author’s part, regardless of whether the book is an encyclopedia, a contemporary thriller, a historical fiction, or even a travelogue with photographs, the world that the book details remains untouchable by our human hands. This is because that world only exists between those pages and in the mind’s eye.

The fundamental laws of physics bar us from going back and viewing or experiencing the reality of a historical event as a participant. We can, however, read about it, paint images of it, or make a film depicting what we believe happened during the event. This is where world building comes in.

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy www.berkeley.edu

WWII US Soldiers Marching, image courtesy http://www.berkeley.edu

But wait, you say. I’m not writing fantasy. I’m writing a story about France, in 1945. I don’t have to build that world–it actually exists.

I’m sorry–the world of France in 1945 is long gone. It no longer exists, except as a memory.

Let’s assume you are writing a historical accounting of the Battle of the Bulge. But, even though it may explore a soldier’s true experiences through newsreels, the pages of his diary, and  the interview you had with him, in reality, the world of this book exists only in three places:

  • it flows from the author’s mind
  • to the pages of the book
  • into the reader’s mind through the written word

Because we can only view history through the stained glass of time, we must accept that it assumes a mythical quality when we attempt to record it. Even a documentary movie that shows events filmed by the news camera may not be portrayed exactly as it was truly experienced. The facts are filtered through the photographer’s eye and the historian’s pen.

Your mind is the medium through which the idea for a novel or story is filtered and words are how it is made real. The key to making both fiction and non-fiction real for the reader is subtle but crucial: worldbuilding. It is worldbuilding that makes a stark accounting of incidents and conversations seem real to the person reading the book.

To build a world out of ideas and words, the author must know it well:

  • Create a stylesheet to avoid contradictions in your work. This is covered in my post, Stylesheets.
  • If your work is set in a contemporary setting, make use of Google Earth. This allows you to see a recent image of the place for yourself, even if you can’t afford to travel there.
  • Go to the internet and find maps of the place in the time your are writing about. If you are writing genre fantasy or speculative fiction of any sort, create a hand-drawn map for your own reference. We will discuss this below.
  • Research/or Create and these systems if they pertain to your work: Political, Social, Religious, and Magic. (We will discuss how to do this simply in my next post.)

If you are writing fantasy you need to know what the world looks like.

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

Original Map of Neveyah from 2008 ©cjjasp

I love maps. My own maps start out in a rudimentary form, scribbled in pencil on graph paper, just as a way to keep my work straight. They begin looking like the one to the left of this paragraph, and evolve as the first draft of the story evolves.

Towns get renamed. They get moved to more logical places. Whole mountain ranges are moved, and forests and savannas appear where they are supposed to be. Over the course of writing the first draft, my world becomes real and the pencil sketch  map will become the digital art you see below.

In my books, people are going hither and yon with great abandon, and if I am not really on top of it, the names of towns will evolve over the course of the novel–Maudy will become Maury (this actually happened) and distances will become too mushy even for me. The map is my indispensable tool for keeping my story straight.

Map of Neveyah, for RizAero

Map of Neveyah 2015 ©cjjasp

When your characters are traveling great distances, they may pass through villages on their way, and if these places figure in the events of the book, they should be noted on the map. This prevents you from:

  • accidentally naming a second village the same name later in the manuscript
  • misspelling the town’s name later in the narrative
  • forgetting where the characters were in chapter four

Perhaps certain things will impede your characters. If they are pertinent to the story, you will want to note their location of on your map so that you don’t contradict yourself if your party must return the way they came:

  • Rivers
  • swamps
  • mountains
  • hills
  • towns
  • forests
  • oceans

Billy's Revenge Floor plan ground floorIf your work is in sci-fi, consider making a rudimentary star-chart, if space-travel is a part of your tale. For Sci-fi, you might want to know:

  • the name of the star or stars if the system is binary/trinary
  • number of planets, their names and positions
  • which planet the story takes place on
  • moons and asteroid belts that may be relevant to the tale
  • map of the area on the planet your story takes place or
  • map of space station/ship if the story takes place in space

In the narrative, if you are writing fantasy, I suggest you keep the actual distances mushy because some readers will  nitpick the details, no matter how accurate you are. Yes, you wrote it, but they don’t see it the way you do. This is because their perception of a league may be three miles while yours might be one and a half. Despite the fact that a league has no finite length and is whatever the author decides it is, some readers feel their opinion is of such worth that they will never back down. They will become so annoyed by this that they will give your book a three-star review, simply because they disagree with the length of time your character took to travel a certain distance. 

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A league is a unit of length (or, in various regions, area). It was long common in Europe and Latin America, but it is no longer an official unit in any nation. The word originally meant the distance a person could walk in an hour.[1] Since the Middle Ages, many values have been specified in several countries.”

Map of Eynier Valley for 'Huw the Bard, ' ©cjjasp 2014

Map of Eynier Valley for ‘Huw the Bard, ‘ ©cjjasp 2014

Therefore, a league is what you say it is, within some loose parameters. I go with the distance you can walk in an hour, but you have to take into consideration the terrain.

Huw the Bard takes two months to travel between Ludwellyn and Clythe. In his story, Huw Owyn is walking through fields, woods, and along a several winding rivers for the first half of  his journey. He has to backtrack as frequently as he goes forward in order to sneak around those who would kill him. It’s only safe for him to walk on the main road once he makes it to Maury, weeks after fleeing Ludwellyn.

It is a stretch of road that he could have done in two weeks if he had been able to stay on the main road, and if he hadn’t had to do so much backtracking. But that inability to make progress creates opportunities for tension.

Readers love to see maps in the front of books, but you don’t have to put your there if you don’t like your own handiwork. This map can be only for your purposes, so you will know in a concrete way where every town and village is in relation to your story.

Fantasy readers like maps. If you choose not to include your map in the finished product, consider hiring an artist to make your map from your notes. Because I am an artist, my pencil-drawn map always evolves into artwork for the book.

Every book, fiction or non-fiction, takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. It is our job as authors to take what is intangible and make it seem real to the reader who is experiencing the world and a moment in history through our writing.


Filed under Fantasy, writing

St Albans – stained glass and medieval paint

I have enjoyed this journey through the history and architecture of St. Albans so much! I can’t thank Sue Vincent enough for sharing it with us, through both her camera and her eye for the poetry in things. What I’ve learned from observing her as she experiences this place, is that writers must see the world through the eye of the artist.

Daily Echo

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The very first time Stuart came down to visit, long before we had any idea we were at the beginning of an adventure and even longer before we had even thought about writing together, I had stopped outside the tiny village church of Little Missenden on the way back from the station.

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I would say, ‘don’t ask me why’ as we had never visited a church together before…and I knew so little of him then that he might have been completely uninterested… but the truth is, I do know why. It is a very special place, a good way from my home, and one I used to visit when I was working out that way, just for the peace and beauty… and it has beautiful stained glass like a Tree of Life…and ancient pilgrims crosses graffitied into the walls… and fabulous medieval wall paintings… But that wasn’t it either. I…

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W.B. Yeats

Skagit River Mist/PFly CC-BY-SA-2.0


W.B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.


I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Nobel Prize winning Irish dramatist, author and poet.

The poetry of WB Yeats occupies a large place in my heart and is one of my favorite sources of inspiration.  In his early years, Yeat’s was not afraid to write of faeries and mystical things that fired my childish imagination. Later, as he grew as both a writer and as a person, he also wrote wonderful works that were more firmly rooted in reality. The Lake Isle of Innisfree was published in 1890.


Filed under #FlashFictionFriday, Fantasy, Poetry

St Albans – “Count the stars…”

Sue Vincent continues St. Albans, this time though the abbey itself. Seen through the eye of the photographer and the soul of the poet, we find ourselves in a holy place, where architecture meets the divine.

Daily Echo

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We had finally made it into the Crossing at the centre of the Abbey… you barely remembered that the tiles beneath your feet had been made by Minton when you looked up. One incredible painted ceiling after another stretched away from the Tower Ceiling. The precise outlines of the stones on the white of the walls are an illusion created by medieval painters and the Norman arches that have stood a thousand years are decorated in ochre.

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Above them float the roses of St Albans. Although the bright painted panels we now see were only installed in the 1950s, they are an exact copy of the 15th C tiles that are still in place above them, now protected by their presence. One of the tiles can be seen against the painted stones of the aisle. The tiles show the red and white roses of the House of Lancaster and York…

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Filed under Adventure, History, mythology

amwriting: the author’s voice

The sense of style steven pinkerAnyone who is a member of a writing group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatic style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound, but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence, just “because it says so in Strunk and White.” I rely on the Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English.

We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers.

You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.

You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

Stephen Pinker discusses many rules in his controversial book, The Sense of Style, and finds that some of them no longer make sense.

For example, Pinker points out that “The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.” 

He notes that rigidly following “the rules” would have you doing silly things like turning “What are you looking at?” into “At what are you looking?”  I don’t know about you, but for me the first example is preferable.

In the example, the word at is a preposition, and placing it after looking makes it a clause-final preposition.  Such a construct is technically a no-no, but I suggest you break that rule.

Stardust, Neil GaimanWe are constantly told that we need to make our verbs active, rather than relying on passive constructions, and for the most part, this is true. But Pinker reminds us that “The passive is a voice and not a tense.” There are times when the use of passive phrasing is appropriate.

Consider the difference between ‘the cat scratched the child’ and ‘the child was scratched by the cat.’  The second sentence is written in the passive voice, and in this context the active voice is the one I would choose because it is simpler and less fluffy.

Pinker agrees with me that there are contexts in which the passive is preferable. Quote from The Sense of Style: “Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory.”

And in writing, context is everything. 

For most genre work, editors push for active voice, but truthfully, mainstream fiction and literary fiction can use the passive voice and still sell boatloads of books. Some of the most beautiful prose out there in genre fantasy mixes passive voice in with the active, and when done right  it is immersive.

name of the wind -patrick rothfussPatrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind is one example, and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is another.

These books are best sellers because both Rothfuss and Gaiman understand how to craft prose that mingles passive and active phrasings, drawing us into their work. They choose when to use passive phrasing, and apply it appropriately so the narrative is a seamless blend of properly constructed sentences chosen to reflect their distinct voices.

The modern prohibition against passive phrasing exists for a reason: improperly and excessively used, the passive voice can weaken your narrative.

Knowledge of grammar and sentence construction is critical if you are an author: Sloppy grammar habits show that your work is badly crafted.

Your voice is the way you habitually phrase things despite your vast knowledge of how grammar is correctly used. Take a look at the great authors: Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce: these authors each had such a distinctive voice that when you read a passage of their work, you knew immediately who you were reading.

They ALL broke the rules in their work and were famous for doing so.

Raymond chandler quote split infinitivesHowever, they understood the rules they were breaking and broke them deliberately and selectively in the crafting of their narrative.

Imagine a story set in an expensive restaurant. This story revolves around a marriage that is disintegrating. The couple, Jack and Diane, dine in silence. The food is important, but only because of what it represents. How do you convey this?

The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth. Nevertheless, Diane wielded her knife like a surgeon, cutting her meat into tiny, uniform chunks, chewing each bite slowly before swallowing. Jack imagined her carving his heart similarly, chewing it carefully and then spitting it out.

800px-Night_Sky_Stars_Trees_Quote“The steak was well-prepared and melted in Jack’s mouth” is written with a passive voice, and that is okay. The important thing is Jack’s observation of Diane and her mad knife skills. You don’t need to say “The chef had prepared the steak perfectly.” Unless he is having an affair with Jack or Diane, the chef who prepared the tender steak is not important and doesn’t need to be mentioned.

Steven Pinker has some words of wisdom for would-be editors: “It’s very easy to overstate rules. And if you don’t explain what the basis is behind the rule, you’re going to botch the statement of the rule—and give bad advice.”

Knowing what the rule is and why it exists allows you to choose to break it if that is your desire.

Writing style is a combination of so many things. It is how you speak through your pen or keyboard. Craft your prose with an eye to what is important to your story, and say it with your voice. With that said, your voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. A good editor will understand the difference and guide you away from bad writing, helping you find your voice in such a way that your work will be a joy to read.


Filed under Fantasy, Publishing, writing

#amwriting: stylesheets

IBM_SelectricWriting a fictional novel is really the same as telling a whopping lie that you believe in with all your heart and keeping it straight for 80,000 words or more.

Everyone knows how lies evolve in the telling. That tendency to elaborate and embellish is the eventual downfall of even the most believable of liars.

What the writer has going for them that the average liar doesn’t is paper. We write the falsehood down on paper the way we pretend it happened. Once the fabrication is complete we have the luxury to go back and forth over it, making sure we haven’t contradicted ourselves, and then we dare the reader to believe it.

I posted a blog to this effect on November 9, 2015: 3 steps for keeping the story straight. One step that I discussed is what editors refer to as the “stylesheet.”

Bleakbourne Style SheetWhen a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a stylesheet.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or  keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and past every new word or name the first time they appear in the manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

Many people use a program call Scrivener for this and they are happy with it, but I found it didn’t mesh well with the way MY mind works, so I went back to my one-page list and hand scribbled map.

Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  • Word/Name
  • Page it first appears
  • Meaning


This is especially crucial for fantasy authors because we invent entire worlds, creating names for people, places, and creatures.

Take my own work-in-progress: it is the final volume of the Tower of Bones trilogy, and has people with names that can be spelled several ways, and when I am in the throes of writing the first draft I fling them out any old way.

Thus, a character named Linette on page one can become Lynette by page six. Kalen can become Kalin. Place names become mushy, and any word that is important or invented can evolve over the course of a manuscript.

Now I am in the final stages of making the manuscript submission-ready. I have completed a global search for every possible variant of the words on my list, and replaced the incorrect instances with the version I like best.

Valley of Mal Evol ©Connie J. Jasperson 2016Place names evolve too, so maps are essential tools when you are building a world. Places written on a map tend to be ‘engraved in stone’ so to speak. Readers will wonder where the town of Maudy is when the only town on the map at the front of the book that comes close to that name is listed as Maury.

To prevent that from happening, double check what you have written on the map, and then do a global search for every possible variant.

Just because you invented the world doesn’t mean you know it like the back of your hand. That world is constantly evolving in your mind. I have been writing in the world of Neveyah since 2009, and still I find that I frequently contradict myself, which is why the stylesheet is so important.


Filed under Fantasy, Publishing, writing

St Albans… ‘render unto Caesar’

Photographer and author, Sue Vincent, takes us on a journey through British history via the architecture of St. Albans. It is in this village where the real influence of the Romans can still be seen. Roman and Victorian building styles collide and create something uniquely British.

Daily Echo

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Tuesday morning looked promising as we headed out early for St Albans. The beautiful sky soon clouded over, though, leaving us with a chill and persistent rain. We’d been meaning to visit the town for a long time, knowing that the history and stories associated with the place tied in heavily with many areas of our adventures…not least because of St Alban himself.

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Recorded as the first British Christian martyr, the saint was beheaded for his faith in Roman Verulamium, now the town of St Albans. There are many versions of his story and we had not really researched them before we left and had only the briefest of outlines. I remembered vaguely that he was a cephalophore, one whose voice had continued after the beheading…and that a spring had welled from the ground where the head had rolled; a common motif in the stories of the saints that seems…

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