Or, Getting From A to D via the B and C of it all
Today I wanted to talk about maps and mapping your novel, and how I use maps while mapping my novels. There are two parts to this.
- 1) The way I structure the paths through the story
- 2) How I use maps when creating a novel
Mapping Your Way Through Your Story
When previously talking about structure, I have recommended a couple of screenwriting books to read which were written by experts about story structure. ‘Story’ by Robert McKee, and ‘The 21st Century Screenplay’, by Linda Aronson. I can also add to that ‘Into the Woods’ by John Yorke. (I also recommend the Sondheim/Lapine musical with the same title as an excellent example of how to interweave stories together.) Read those books and you’ll know just about all there is to know about how to structure a story. Add in ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Vogler, and you’ll know all there is to know about character arcs and development, archetypal characters and plot structure.
There are various ways to structure a story, but let’s think simple for now. By the time your story ends, something should have changed, a character should have learnt something or altered his/her state, and you should leave the reader with a sense of things to come thanks to that change, either good or bad. In other words, the end state is far away from the beginning state.
You can start your tale partway through the overall story as I did with ‘Artful Deception.’ There, chapter one starts a few days into the story, leaving us wondering what was happening and how and why the characters were in that situation. Then, in chapter two, we start at the real beginning with the inciting incident that leads to the scene we read in chapter one, and then we carry on from there. That’s a way of drawing the reader in and is very common in films. The point is, the story still starts somewhere and ends somewhere else, and I don’t just mean physically.
To get your action from A to D, you need to go via the B and C, and that’s where you need to map things out. I make a list of ‘hit points’ or ‘plot points’ or twists if you like…
A, everything’s fine and dandy when something happens.
That leads to B, trying to work out what has happened and what we can do about it, which then leads to a twist or change of direction at halfway, and we’re off into…
… C, how do we deal with what’s happened? Working through that, through difficulties and challenges, emotional turmoil and whatever, leads us to the crisis. Just when you think things couldn’t get worse or the hero is doomed, he overcomes his fatal flaw, takes a leap of faith, and pulls up his socks.
That done, we then get on the with D of the story, the climax, and, after that, we’re in a different story state. It’s done, and the reader can relax or sigh with relief. We have gone from the A state of normality, travelled with our characters through the B and C (the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune) to the final battle and the D, the resolve.
Don’t take my words literally. You don’t have to have a physical final battle, it can be an emotional one, but it usually involves a leap of faith or a difficult decision. That’s because the emotional plot (character arcs, development, overcoming fatal flaws etc.) runs parallel to the action, and also needs mapping.
There are loads of online resources to use to understand this better, and while searching for a simple illustration of the above, I found the graphic below. This shows you the points of the story I mentioned (inciting incident to climax, etc.) with a typical character arc set against it in a graph.
How I use maps when creating a novel
If you have read ‘The Clearwater Inheritance’ you will have seen a map of the route of the Orient Express circa 1890 to 1914. I had that map drawn because I wanted to include it at the start of the book, and because I love looking at maps. I can sit at my desk for ages reading a map, imagining the locations, revelling in the romantic place names, the terrain, contours and symbols, and I often have a map open when taking my characters on a journey. I have a map of the Great Western Railway routes, again from the late 19th to early 20th century, and I referred to it while writing my recent Work In Progress blog about ‘Speaking in Silence.’
I have a fantastic book about the history of maps and cartography, ‘The Cartographia’ by Vincent Virga, which sits in pride of place on my desk. Vincent also wrote ‘Gaywyck’, the first gay gothic romance novel. Along with the Cartographia, I have a Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World, a large book that talks about topography, geology, and geography, and comes with detailed maps of every part of the planet. I use this to find remote locations, such as the castle in ‘Negative Exposure’, so I can see where my characters are at any one time when on a countrywide chase.
Then, I have the more detailed Ordnance Survey maps, such as the one of Bodmin Moor where the imaginary Larkspur Hall is found. I have drawn on my copy, filling in a rough estate boundary for Larkspur and marking the location of the ring of standing stones Joe discovers in ‘Keepers of the Past.’ The OS Explorer maps are great for detail, but if you’re not a map reader and want to see what a location looks like, then Google Maps is where you need to go.
I use the Google map service a great deal. I find a place on the map, then switch to the image results to get an overview, and then switch to the Maps option and use the satellite view. With that, you can zoom in, and even place yourself on a street or in the countryside and really get into detail. I used this in ‘Speaking in Silence’ as you will read in the author’s notes at the end. That story is based on a real event, and the newspaper reports I found gave the address of one of the characters in 1891. I went to the satellite service and dropped myself onto the same road, found the actual house and had a look at it, as it is still standing.
Ah yes, you say, but that’s a good point. What we see now on these maps may not be what was there in 1891 when my current novels are set. You are right, I reply, and that’s why I often go to the National Library of Scotland. They have a brilliant online resource for old maps. If, for example, you head to this link: London map 1888 to 1913 you should see a black and white map of London that you can zoom into. In the bottom left corner of the screen is a ‘transparency of overlay’ feature, a slider that, when slid, reveals today’s Google map of the area, so you can compare then and now. The site has hundreds of maps of different scales and from different times and is a great online resource. Here is a link to their list of online digital resources. https://www.nls.uk/digital-resources/
Why am I Even Talking About Maps?
You might wonder why I am talking about maps at all. The reason is that the next novel in the Larkspur series involves journeys, as will the one after it. I am about to release ‘Speaking in Silence’, and have started working on the sixth book in the series, ‘Staring at Secrets.’ After that, we will have ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ and both books will involve characters from Larkspur and Clearwater heading off to various places, trying to put together a massive puzzle and find a ‘secret treasure’, as I’m calling it for now. Because I like to be as accurate as possible, I’m using maps of the time and other resources to work out distances, the time it would have taken to travel, and the means the characters would have had at their disposal. That’s why I also have a copy of Baedeker’s Egypt from 1892, and Cook’s Tourist Handbook for Egypt, the Nile and the Desert, 1897.
While the fun part is happening—the plotting, mapping and planning—I am also mapping the character’s arcs and developments, working out who will be the main character(s), what the emotional and love story will be, and those throughlines will be mapped against the physical action storyline. If you look at the photo of my larger notebook, you’ll see the beginnings of a rough chart that spans both books, as ‘Staring at Secrets’ is part one of the story. That’s good fun to do, but it’s also vital if you are to produce a well-structured action and emotional story through which your characters grow, and through which you take your reader from the ordinary world of A to the new world of D via the B and C of it all.