Fiction is a product of the imagination even if its narrative is set in a real place, which exists in the real world. Many fictions aren’t, of course, especially if fantastical or science fiction. Their created worlds are often detailed and frequently accompanied by a map.
My fiction is very much located in real places – place is very important to me. So ‘Plague’ is a novel of London, it couldn’t really take place anywhere else. So much so that I have created a ‘Walk of the Book’ – there’s a free leaflet showing you how to visit the locations which feature in the book and walk the course of the ‘lost’ River Tyburn, if you’re ever in London and want to do a city walk. You can find it on the Welcome page of this website.
Although the action took place mainly in SW1 – the ‘postcode of power’ – a map was included at the beginning of the book so that a reader who was unfamiliar with that area could see how the locations, some of them very famous, some much less so, lay in relation to each other.
‘Oracle’ is set in Delphi, somewhere much less familiar to most people, unless they happen to have visited there. Its geography is unusual in that the town of Delphi clings, vine-like, to the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus and has as many stepped alleyways as it has hairpin roads and some truly dramatic and spectacular views. So this place is very, very specific. I have written before about one of the locations of the book, the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside Delphi town ( in Crime Scene )and will be writing about another, the ancient Temple of Apollo site, in future, but this article isn’t about either place, but about how place is represented in books, particularly about maps.
My assumption, partly because I love a map, is that such a thing is helpful at the start of a book, especially if the location of the tale is unfamiliar. But then, I prefer to read physical books, an object which is in my hand and which I do not look beyond. Many people don’t read this way, they use Kindles or similar devices which link to the internet. So there’s plenty of software available, Open Street, Bing, Google or OS, which will find them a map on their device.
A part of me also thinks that I should, as a writer, be able to create the world of the book so successfully in words that a map isn’t needed. Many readers of ‘Plague’ commented on how vividly the locations were drawn and, how, in future, they would walk the streets of SW1 with a rather different view of them to that they had had before. This is great to hear for the writer, but it adds weight to the idea that the writing should be all the reader needs. It should make them feel that they are in that place, but also gives them sufficient understanding of where specific places are relative to each other. So, if that’s the case, isn’t having a map being a lazy writer?
I couldn’t really decide, so I did what I often do now, I asked readers. In this instance the members of UK Crime Book Club. I explained my dilemma and asked their opinion. This prompted many comments ( one hundred and forty two people contributed ) overwhelmingly in favour of maps. Some fellow writers disagreed, however, saying, for example ‘I prefer to have my readers follow where I take them.’ and ‘If a book needs a map to make sense of the story or plot then the story/plot isn’t clear enough.’ Some readers gave maps the thumbs down too e.g. ‘Don’t like a map and timeline etc. It complicates and distracts from just naturally drinking in the narrative of the book.’ but the vast majority were in favour.
In particular they welcomed the clarification a map provided of where places were in relation to other places, with comments like ‘Not everyone has a geographical memory, or any idea where sites are in relation to each other. I’d appreciate a map like this.’ or ‘Maps are great! And descriptions don’t necessarily give a picture of where everything is in relation to everything else.’
I even discovered, during the discussion, that there is another book which is set in Delphi, called ‘A Spartan’s Sorrow’ by Hannah Lynn, the second in a series reimagining Greek myth, from the perspective of Clytemnestra and it’s published this week. Those classical stories resonate for ever. But the debate about maps also prompted some reminiscences about first encountering maps in books. The map at the front of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books, for example, or ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, which are true works of art. Indeed, this Autumn, HarperCollins will be publishing a new version of the books, including all of J.R.R.Tolkien’s original maps, drawings and painting (as reported in the Guardian ).
Those readers who responded to my question about maps will be pleased, mainly, to learn that there’s one in ‘Oracle’ and I’ll be talking about the novel with Samantha Brownley at the UKCBC on 13th May ( see Events ).