How to Set Up a Setting with a Map (in Iowa and elsewhere)

Setting is the world our characters inhabit, where they live and breathe and fight and laugh and feel and die. Often taken for granted, it is incredibly important to the production of a story. Even if we don’t cast our characters off into some fantasy land long ago and instead place them in modern-day Iowa, we still need to have a full grasp of the modern-day Iowa we are trying to create.

There are a number of tools and exercises you can use. Today I want to focus on one that has been entirely beneficial for me—in fantasy, historical, and modern-day fiction. While I am no artist (there’s a reason we write, not paint), I find that being able to draw out what I describe helps me to see any flaws in the layout I’ve imagined and helps me to more specifically detail the setting I am inventing. Normally my maps end up looking like the artwork of a first grader, but as long as I can interpret them visually, I am able to put my maps into words, and it is in words that I need to convey the setting to others.

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So what do I include in the maps? It depends. Let’s say a good chunk of my story takes place in a house. I may draw one map that explains the layout of the house (and that would have an architect screaming profanities at me). Then, I might add supplementary maps of each room. These might include what’s hanging on the walls, where the couch is located, if the floor is carpeted, or what drawer the silverware is in. That may sound incredibly specific, but if in chapter two you have a character grabbing a cup from the cupboard left of the sink and again in chapter seventeen but from the right, you have a continuity problem that could have been easily prevented with a little forethought.

It is not just for continuity’s sake that I do this. Mapping out a setting really helps me consider what my characters would see and hear and smell as they travel through the world I’ve invented. By spending the time set aside for mapping, I am forced to think about the experience my characters will have with their world, rather than invent it as I go. As I trace a map from Akron, Ohio to California (as I’ve just done in my most recent novel), I force myself to think, “What kind of billboards will they pass?” or “What do the cities smell like?” A little preliminary consideration goes a long way in creating worlds.

Like I said, there are so many ways to develop setting. I am still discovering new practices every time I design a world for my characters to inhabit, and I look forward to one day finding a practice that trumps my mapping exercise. Until then, I’ll stick to my first grader doodles. They seem to help.

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