Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hey, How'd That Happen?: Mapping Out Your Setting

At the end of January I received the edit notes for my midgrade novel, CHAINED, so I've been working on those a lot lately, after giving them a couple weeks to sit on my desk so we could get used to one another. One thing the editor asked me to do was make a rough map of the setting. She's having trouble picturing where things are in the story, so that's something I need to make more clear as I revise.

Most of the story takes place on the old circus grounds where the main character, Hastin, works as an elephant keeper. I used the Draw program in OpenOffice to make a diagram of the property and came up with this:

I sent the diagram to the editor, but I've also kept a hard copy next to me while I revise, and it's really helped me firm up the setting. Whatever a character is doing, I check to make sure his actions make sense. Would he really be able to see what he's describing, or would the trees be in the way? Is he close enough to overhear that conversation he's eavesdropping on? What's a water bucket doing by the arena?

Just last night I was working on a scene where Hastin is bathing the elephant, Nandita, in the spring and decides to escape with her. The two of them take off and run away to the forest where Nandita used to live, and from there Hastin plans to return home. Then I looked at the diagram and said, "Hey, you two-- how did you get past the fence?"


If Hastin were escaping on his own, I'm sure he could climb the fence, but with an elephant? Ummm, now what? Let's see:
  • People can do amazing things when they're really, really motivated. Powered by an adrenaline rush and desperation, Hastin carries the elephant over the fence. (What? It's not like she's full grown.)
  • You know, I've always wanted to write fantasy. Hello, magical fence that disappears for a chapter!
  • That fence is pretty old. How convenient it's rotted away over there by the spring.
  • Balloons. Lots and lots of helium balloons.
But after sleeping on it, I decided a fence that size would need a few gates, and I hadn't put any in the diagram. People are coming and going throughout the day, and I don't think they're all climbing over the fence. And they had to get the elephant in somehow, didn't they? They brought her in a big truck and drove right up to the arena. But if the gates are too accessible, it would be easy for Hastin and Nandita to escape any time, and the story would be over. 

So, now we have one wide gate--one of those big metal ones you might see on a farm, held closed with a chain and padlock. In a couple other places are gates for people to walk on and off the circus grounds. 

There. Now we don't have an entire cast of characters trapped forever behind a fence. For the scene I was working on, Nandita is a young elephant and can pass through one of those smaller gates (barely), but when she's older that won't be possible.

This isn't the only scene that changed--I've tweaked so many scenes as a result of having a map of the setting on the writing desk. It made everything so much clearer; if you're holding your setting only in your head, it's too easy to change it as you go along. You can have buildings that change locations from chapter to chapter, trees show up out of nowhere, fences that disappear and reappear. 

I'd have saved myself a lot of revision time (and head smacks) if I'd had the setting map from the beginning. It still would have changed along the way, but I would have changed it on the paper diagram too, so I could keep things consistent in the story. 

So if you haven't made a setting map for your story, try drawing one out and see if that helps you as your write your draft or revise.

Or a lot of you may have done this already--have you drawn out maps of your settings, and has it helped your writing? Have you used it to work out a problem that came up? Or do you cheat and just add balloons?


  1. Hah! I love those head-desk moments where we realize those gaping problems that we can't believe we never spotted. Or at least... maybe I like hearing about them happening to other people. ;) Bonus that you figured out a LOGICAL way to make it work!

  2. I had to draw a make during revision, too. Boy, did I ever need it!


  3. Right Anne, nice to know we're not the only ones who make those mistakes, isn't it?

    Shelly, I plan to make a map of the setting much earlier in the writing process from now on!

  4. The map is such a good idea! But I personally vote for the helium. :)

  5. I love your map. I drew a diagram of my setting in pencil, but it's not nearly as fancy as yours. You've inspired me to try and do one digitally. Thanks.