“I wisely started with a map and made the story fit”J R.R. Tolkien
Since October 2019, I’ve been writing a fantasy novel intially inspired by the wild landscape of the Scottish coast, particularly its islands. However, I’d wanted to write a fantasy novel for as long as I could remember, and had seriously been thinking of ideas for a year before. I’d even written a short prologue to the novel months earlier, but had no idea how to build the rest of the novel from there. In the end, it was the ‘map method’ that helped me put pen-to-paper.
Of course, like most fantasy-nerds, I’ve always loved pouring over the maps inside the front cover from iconic fantasy places like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea and Frank Herbert’s Arrakis. I still hugely appreciate the inclusion of maps in contempory fantasy novels, they add a conceptual level of detail for us reader’s to go beyond the page, beyond the specific places the characters visit in the story and let our imaginations go off exploring.
However the real idea and motivation to try the ‘map method’ came from seeing an exhibition on the Tolkien called ‘The Maker of Middle Earth’ at Oxford’s Bodleian Library in Autumn 2018.
Tolkien’s ‘Steps’ to create Middle Earth
I learnt that Tolkien’s process could be summed in these three steps.
- Language. Tolkien amazingly, started off his conception of Middle Earth by creating its Elvish languages. Whilst most of us who’ve read his work may have seen the languages as an added ‘extra’, for Tolkien this was the other way round: “The invention of languages is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.”
- Peoples. Next, he came up with different ‘peoples’ to speak the different branches of ‘The Tree of Tongues’ he created, though just as in our world, some of these tongues he marked as extinct.
- Places. Then he found he needed places for these different ‘peoples’ to live. Thus, he began to draw up the maps of Middle Earth so familiar to us today.
Here below is the first proper map Tolkien drew of Middle-Earth in the 1920s, which inspired the stories of the Silmarillion. A prolific doodler, it’s fitting Tolkien drew it on a page torn out of a University of Leeds exam booklet, where Tolkien was teaching at the time. His sprawling annotations of place names include both English ‘Land of Dread’ and Elvish ‘Nan Dun-Gorthin’. I love that you can see his mental processes through the crossing-out and editing too.
Amazed as I still am by his creative mind, I knew there was no way I’d be able to start by creating languages from scratch so I’d have to skip Step 1. I had a vague idea of what the peoples of my world would be like, based around the atmosphere and characters from Scottish literature, but I didn’t really know where else to go from there so Step 2 wasn’t really going to be feasible either. All I really knew for sure is that I knew I wanted my novel to be based on an island simiar in appearance and feel to the Outer Hebrides. So I decided to skip straight to Step 3 and draw a map.
Below is the first map that was ever drawn of the world of my novel. It was drawn in Cornwall and shows the island of Hekserid and some of its landmarks. You can see at the bottom some of the place names I was toying with!
This map helped me so much, I took the fragments of writing I already had and ideas for characters and placed them on the map. I made notes about what each town, village and islet was like and thought about the relationships of these places and how this island would function as a society. Questions like: Where was the economic heart of this society? Was it ruled from the biggest city or the most historical? How did the islets view the mainland and vice versa? What reputation and rivalries did different areas have? I started taking notes about all of these and my world came into being. I still have pages of these notes which I add to and edit as I write more of the story.
It doesn’t matter that much of this map has changed and expanded, place names have swapped around or been stolen by characters, the ‘map method’ has been the most valuable writing experiment I’ve done, and I’d recommend any budding fantasy writer give it a go.