Where Are Your Story’s Characters?

road trip, map, travel

photo: rabi w, creative commons license

Occasionally a book review will comment on the strong sense of place an author has evoked, so much so that the city or country almost becomes another character in the story.

Many details about the way a place looks, feels, smells, and how its denizens behave make up that reader impression.It starts with a clear—or clearly imagined—geography. Get the bones of the place right and you can attach all those memorable details to it. Create geographic confusion, and your reader may be lost.

I love maps, so imagine my delight to discover a kindred spirit in author Barbara O’Neal,  who wrote a fascinating Writer Unboxed essay titled “The Complex Power of Mapping the World of Your Novel.” It isn’t surprising that many science fiction and fantasy writers who create “new worlds” create physical maps of these places as a writing aid. My two novels-in-progress are set in real places—places I’ve been—and yet I rely on numerous maps, both paper and electronic, to plot my characters’ actions. O’Neal has connected with other writers who also need “that physical representation of the world of our imaginations,” she wrote.

Some authors go so far as to create a map on the flyleaf of a book–or on the back cover as in a “locked room” mystery I recently read—to keep the reader in the picture. That book, Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit, contained a map of the grounds as well as the layout of rooms in the hunting lodge.

Why It Matters

Without a firm sense of place, fantasy authors risk confusing their readers, but my readers would be writing angry letters: “You should know it’s impossible to walk from the Piazza del Popolo to the Colosseum in Ten Minutes!?” Either problem distracts the reader from the story and diminishes its believability. And it is a problem because, as author consultant Chris Roerden explains, “We humans have a primal need to orient ourselves in our surroundings.”

We’ve lost something with GPS giving us a mostly narrow view of where we’re going and what we need to do next in order to get there. The “big picture” orientation a full-sized map provides is gone. (I laughed when I read a millennial’s observation that some of his co-workers use GPS to get to the office and home again, every day.)

O’Neal cites a growing body of research that shows our brains are wired to ensure we have a connection to places—“to be oriented, very intricately, to place, time, and thus, emotion.” The blind child Marie-Laure in Anthony Doerr’s magical All the Light We Cannot See navigates the physical world through the map that exists in her imagination. How her father taught her that map was Doerr’s powerful evocation of finding her place—literally and metaphorically—in the world.

The maps O’Neal creates in parallel with her fiction, like the reference points I establish for my characters, help us establish a consistent geography, are the first step in establishing a strong sense of place, which is, she says, “one of the most powerful parts of writing.”

Further Resources

American Nations by Colin Woodard – maps eleven cultural strains in U.S. history and politics; fascinating! Great insights for establishing “sense of place.”
Don’t Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden – helpful guidance and refresher for authors; winner of an Agatha Award for best non-fiction

****American Nations

American Nations, mapBy Colin Woodard – This 2011 book—a pick of my book club—is a thought-provoking analysis of the different cultural strains, mostly organized along geographic lines, that make up what author Sarah Vowell calls “the (somewhat) United States.” Woodard’s subtitle is “a history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America.” Many of those rivalries, which date to our earliest history, well before the Revolutionary War, have been amplified, not erased, by subsequent events, and help to explain some of the political schisms we see today.

The answer to a frustrated electorate’s “Why can’t our politicians (and voters) ever agree on anything?” is partly that they never did. Of course, aggregate data hide a lot of individual differences, and none of the characterizations Woodard has developed for his eleven regions describe every individual living there, just the region’s general cultural tendencies. Some of his regions cross over into Canada and Mexico too.

The regions, which he says “have been hiding in plain sight throughout our history,” are:

  • Yankeedom began as a “religious utopia in the New England wilderness.” Those early colonies emphasized education, local political control, and efforts aimed at the greater good of the community.
  • New Netherland laid down the cultural underpinnings of greater New York City; a trading society that was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and committed to freedom of inquiry. Its precepts were memorialized in the Bill of Rights.
  • The Midlands, founded by English Quakers and organized around the middle class people predominantly of German background and moderate political opinions who don’t welcome government intrusion.
  • Tidewater catered to conservative aristocratic elites who were gentleman farmers, strong on respect for authority and dependent on slave labor. It was dominant during the colonial period, but lost its standing by dint of its culture’s inability to expand beyond coastal areas.
  • Greater Appalachia was founded by “wave upon wave of rough, bellicose settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands” who in their native lands formed a strong independent spirit, suspicious of aristocratic overlords and social reformers alike (think Mel Gibson in Braveheart).
  • The Deep South, founded by Barbados slave lords, became the bastion of white supremacy and aristocratic privilege. It is the least democratic of the 11 regions while being “the wellspring of African American culture.”
  • New France is an amalgam of the Canadian Province of Québec and some other areas of far eastern Canada as well as the Acadian (“Cajun”) territories of southern Louisiana.
  • El Norte dates to the late 16th century, when the Spanish empire founded missions north into California. It includes Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Texas, as well as northern Mexican states that, Woodard says, are more oriented toward the United States than Mexico City.
  • The Left Coast is a narrow strip from Monterey, California, to Juneau, Alaska, and includes San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. The cities were originally developed by Yankee traders who came by ship and the countryside by overland arrivals from the Appalachian region and the culture today is an amalgam of Yankee idealism and Appalachian independence.
  • The Far West is the only area “where environmental factors truly trumped ethnic ones.” The region is unsuited for traditional farming, but its resources have been exploited by companies headquartered in distant cities and they and the federal government own vast tracts of land. Locals largely oppose federal interference (just in the news again lately), even as they depend on federal dollars.
  • First Nation he defines as a large region in the far north, where the indigenous population has never given up its lands and still employs traditional cultural practices.

Like any analysis intended to look at history through a single lens, Woodard may tailor his arguments to support his approach. Nevertheless, he presents an intriguing hypothesis that carries the ring of truth. In this political season, many of the old antagonisms and patterns he describes are newly visible and, frankly, any cogent explanation of why Americans do some of the things we do is welcome!

Your Literary Dream Vacation

road trip, map, travel

(photo: rabi w, creative commons license)

Need an organizing principle for your next vacation? Here are four literary-themed travel ideas, heavy on the mystery element:

See the U.S.A.

I’ve written before about Esotouric’s fun mystery/literary tours of SoCal. They scout out the locations of sites in classic books by Raymond Chandler (and other authors), researching “the mean streets that shaped his fiction” and inspired such lines as “There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream” from The Long Goodbye. Next Raymond Chandler tour: 8-22-15.

Not available that day? The following week the possibly even juicier “Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice” tour covers the history of the “ribald, racy, raunchy old promenade where the better people simply did not travel.” Something always cooking there.

Atlas Obscura has created an “obsessively detailed map of American Literature’s most epic road trips.” Follow in the footsteps (or the oil pan drips) of such non-fiction bushwhackers as William Least Heat Moon (Blue Highways)—I’ve read this book, and it’s great—Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Mark Twain (Roughing It), and nine other classics that describe “this quintessentially American experience.” Literature AND a map. Can’t get much better.

And NYC by neighborhood from the New York Public Library.

Across the Pond

In case you want something a little more, ahem, Continental, the San Francisco Chronicle has created a map that marks literary highlights of Paris’s Left Bank and includes classic book shops as well as author pilgrimage sites. You can spend a day’s worth of shoe-leather on this one, easy.

Prefer a more sedentary mode of travel? By bus, perhaps (the big advantage of which is all that reading time and three beers at the pub, no problem!). The Smithsonian offers “Mystery Lover’s England,” which explores “the lives and settings of famous detective novelists”: Colin Dexter, Andrew Taylor, Simon Brett, Agatha Christie, and the like, plus the haunts of the characters they wrote about in Devon, the Cotswolds, Oxford, and London. But why anyone would want to risk going to Oxford, with its astounding murder rate—which the Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, and Endeavor have shown on the telly—is beyond me.

“Where You From?”

Lonesome DoveThe .Mic website has compiled a map purportedly showing the most popular novel set in each state based on Goodreads scores for books with more than 50,000 ratings. (What I found out from this is that Goodreads lets you search books by place, albeit not very efficiently. Try it here.) Many of these most popular books have been adapted into movies, “perhaps not coincidentally,” says .Mic author Kevin O’Keeffe, demonstrating the symbiosis between the two art forms.

The most popular book set in New York, no surprise, is The Godfather, and California’s the more high-falutin East of Eden. The choice for Texas, Lonesome Dove, seems perfect; Kansas’s is, predictably, The Wizard of Oz; Hawaii’s is Hawaii. The most popular book set in New Jersey is the 1970 Judy Blume classic, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Come on, New Jersey literati—nothing in the last 45 years?

Washingtonians will probably be surprised to see that the most popular book “set in D.C.” is Leaves of Grass, which as far as I know wasn’t set any particular place and isn’t a novel. Perhaps the collection’s ballooning from an original edition of 12 poems to, with multiple revisions over the years, more than 400, is what makes it especially apt for the nation’s capital. (My quick check of the Goodreads data suggests this pick should have been The Exorcist.)

Stephen King’s The Stand captures four states: Idaho, Vermont, Colorado, and Arkansas. The biggest surprise, however, was seeing Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet as the most popular book set in Utah. Really? Most of that book is set in London and the information about Utah is second-hand and none-too-accurate. And here we hit upon the biggest flaw in the method used to create this map. The story merely has to be plunked into a state, it does not necessarily have to reflect the people, geography, history, or culture of the place. Not at all the same thing as Faulkner’s Mississippi, or Cheever’s Manhattan and suburbs. This is how the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven—a novel whose catastrophes erase all borders and whose setting represents no locales that are more than names—can be picked to represent Michigan.

Of course, anyone can quibble. Still, it’s an interesting exercise and revealing something about how people’s opinions form about states they do not know. When we think of Staten Island, do we picture the Corleone family? When we think of Mississippi, do we recall The Help, and Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird? Sure we do.

27 Maps about English & America

language tree

Ellis Island Language Tree (photo: Colin Howley, creative commons license)

The English language is rich and diverse—and so difficult to learn, especially the spelling—for reasons made amply clear by the first map in this fascinating series. The English language has grown root and branch from a wide diversity of linguistic traditions.

Moreover, English is full of idioms derived from all these different cultures. (A friend who is a native German-speaker wanted a book to read to improve his language skills, and I suggested The Big Sky, a 1947 novel about the American frontier by Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. B. Guthrie, Jr. It’s told in the plain language of the era and characters, and I thought it also might shed light on the formation of the American outlook, pre-1970 or so. Big mistake. Although the vocabulary was easy, the book was so shot full of idioms, phrases an American reader would understand at once, it was impossible for an outsider to parse.)

Back to the maps. Others of particular interest include #7, the accompanying text of which points out that the pronunciation of American English today is closer to 18th-century British English than what current British speakers use. The changes that occurred in British English in the 19th century led to the dropping of the “r” after vowels, which elegant Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s would emulate (“Chahles, wheah did you pahk the cah?”) and other pseudo-elegances, leading inevitably to Singin’ in the Rain’s “I cahn’t, cahn’t, cahn’t.”

#13 is a map of Europe showing where English-speakers can most likely have a conversation in their native language. More than 95% of Britons can carry on such a conversation, as can 39% percent of people in France. Whether they will do so is a separate question, though the French I’ve encountered have shown great patience with my fumbling attempts at their language.

Don’t miss #22, which is a reprise of a video that made the rounds some months ago, a woman demonstrating 17 different British accents. First up is the “received pronunciation” that straddles differences across regions, akin to what we think of in the United States as newscaster-speak, or, more technically, as shown in map #24, “General Northern.”

“General Northern” has replaced a “truly astonishing” number and variety of language families present on the North American continent when European explorers arrived. Few of these American Indian languages survive today. This story also is graphically told on these two maps, accompanying Orin Hargraves’s Visual Thesaurus story on “The Continent of Lost Languages.”

Map Out Your Holiday Gifts

map, Paris

(photo: author)

OK, Santas’ helpers, if someone on your list loves New York, loves maps, loves travel, or just loves to get down with the details, that person might enjoy this wildly popular book of personal maps: Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, by Becky Cooper, illustrated by Bonnie Briant, with an introduction by Adam Gopnik. Pointing to this book as a bellwether, The Guardian says hand-drawn maps are in. So much so, their creators even have their own association. “All maps tell stories,” Cooper says, and proves it with the creative contributions in this very book.

Alternatively, The Guardian story says Wellingtons Travel spent three years creating a map of modern London full of hand-drawn charm, using the 1800s style that shows individual trees and buildings. The photograph accompanying this article is similar to the Wellingtons approach, but it’s a portion of a map of Paris from a favorite poster of mine that’s so realistic, I’m sure I can pick out that little hotel I stayed at near L’Etoile.

Many people have participated in Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan project, contributing their own unique memory portraits, like the map of “My Lost Gloves.” (That one is available as a print from Uncommon Goods, which has an array of intriguing map gift ideas, including the “Single Malts of Scotland” or “Great Wines of France” tasting maps—bases for a couple of good tours, there.) Contribute to the collective mental map of the city by downloading a blank map of Manhattan on which to show the places where you took your own favorite bites out of the Big Apple. Download another and stick it in your love’s Christmas stocking.