November 16, 2018

The Cartography of Fiction

The book that first set me on my way was “Watership Down,” by Richard Adams. I was nine years old when I read it. Basking in its afterglow, I plotted an epic novel about a small group of fugitive otters—one of whom was clairvoyant—who get driven from their home by the ravages of building work, and swim up the River Severn to its source, in Wales, where they establish an egalitarian community called Ottertopia.

As any child author can testify, you can’t begin until you’ve got the map right. So I traced the course of the River Severn from my dad’s road atlas onto Sellotaped-together sheets of A4. Along the looping river, I drew woods, hills, and marshes in the style of the maps in “The Lord of the Rings”: blobs with sticks for trees, bumps for hills, and tufts for marshes. What about toponyms, though? Should I use existing human names, or make up Otterese words for places like Worcester or Upton-upon-Severn? Would otters have words for motorways or factories or bridges? Why would they? Why wouldn’t they? Never mind, I’ll sort that out later. I spent hours on that map, plotting the otters’ progress with a dotted red line and enjoying how nonchalant I’d be at school the day after my unprecedented Booker Prize victory. I’m sure I managed at least half a page of the novel before I got distracted.

Not long after, I borrowed Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea” books from the hallowed Great Malvern Library. My literary début was now going to be set in a vast, planet-size fantasy archipelago. (Even that word is shifty and enchanted, sometimes pronounced “archie-pelago” and sometimes “arky-pelago,” even by the same person.) Wizards, epic voyages, underground labyrinths, talking dragons, languages, rings of power, cosmopolitan ports, primitive societies toward the edges . . . . I could just feel how amazing this book was going to be! All I had to do to get started was draw the map. This time, I asked my mum for an A1 sheet of thick cartridge paper, mounted with masking tape onto one of her heavy artist’s drawing boards. I ran my fingertips over the pristine expanses of parchment-thick paper, drooling over its infinity of possible archipelagos. My job was simply to summon one up to the surface with my Berol felt-tip pens.

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