Wednesday, October 10, 2012

14 WOW Wednesday: Lynne Kelly on Mapping Out Your Setting

Lynne Kelly's debut novel CHAINED was released in May through Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. She's represented by Joanna Volpe at New Leaf Literary & Media. Lynne grew up in Houston, then lived in a couple of much colder places before running back to the Houston area. For a few years she was a special education teacher, until she realized it was a job for someone with good planning and organizational skills. She now works as a sign language interpreter and writes novels for children and young adults. CHAINED is her first novel. Visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter.

Hey, How'd That Happen?: Mapping Out Your Setting

By Lynne Kelly
Back when I received my first round of edit notes for CHAINED, one thing my editor asked me to do was make a rough map of the setting. She was having trouble picturing where things were in the story, so that was something I needed to make more clear as I revised. Part of the problem was that the story had changed so much that by the time I finished writing it, the way I envisioned the setting was different than when I'd started the first draft.
Most of the story takes place on the old circus grounds where the main character, Hastin, works as an elephant keeper. I used the Draw program in OpenOffice to make a diagram of the property and came up with this:
I sent the diagram to the editor so she could see where everything was supposed to be, and keeping a hard copy next to me as I revised really helped me firm up the setting. Whatever a character was doing, I'd check to make sure his actions make sense: Can he really see what he's describing, or are the trees in the way? Is he close enough to overhear that conversation he's eavesdropping on? What's a water bucket doing by the arena?
The diagram was a lifesaver when I worked on the scene where Hastin is bathing the elephant, Nandita,  and decides to escape with her. The two of them take off and run away to the forest where Nandita used to live, and from there Hastin plans to return home. Then I looked at the diagram and said, "Hey, you two-- how did you get past the fence?"
If Hastin were escaping on his own, he could climb the fence, but with an elephant? Ummm, now what? Let's see:
·      People can do amazing things when they're really, really motivated. Powered by an adrenaline rush and desperation, Hastin carries the elephant over the fence. (What? It's not like she's full grown.)
·      You know, I've always wanted to write fantasy. Hello, magical fence that disappears for a chapter!
·      That fence is pretty old. How convenient it's rotted away over there by the spring.
·      Balloons. Lots and lots of helium balloons. (We all loved the movie UP, didn't we?)
But after sleeping on it, I decided a fence that size would need a few gates, and I hadn't put any in the diagram. People are coming and going throughout the day, and I don't think they're all climbing over the fence each time. And they had to get the elephant in somehow, didn't they? They brought her in a big truck and drove right up to the arena. After countless revisions, I'd never shown them opening a gate to bring her in. But if the gates were too accessible, it would've been easy for Hastin and Nandita to escape any time, and the story would be over.
So, now I had one wide gate--one of those big metal ones you might see on a farm, held closed with a chain and padlock. In a couple other places I put gates for people to walk on and off the circus grounds.
There. Now we don't have an entire cast of characters trapped forever behind a fence. For that scene I was working on, Nandita is a young elephant and can pass through one of those smaller gates (barely), but when she's older that wouldn't be possible.
This isn't the only scene that changed--I tweaked so many scenes as a result of having a map of the setting on the writing desk. It made everything so much clearer; if you're holding your setting only in your head, it's too easy to change it as you go along. You can have buildings that change locations from chapter to chapter, trees show up out of nowhere, fences that disappear and reappear.
I'd have saved myself a lot of revision time (and head smacks) if I'd had the setting map from the beginning. It still would have changed as the story evolved, but I would have changed it on the paper diagram too, so I could keep things consistent in the story.
So if you haven't made a setting map for your story, try drawing one out and see if that helps you as your write your draft or revise. 

Or a lot of you may have done this already--have you drawn out maps of your settings, and has it helped your writing? Have you used it to work out a problem that came up? Or do you cheat and just add balloons?


  1. What a brilliant idea. I've never thought of doing this before. Thanks, Lynne, for the suggestion.

  2. This is a useful idea. Having a map in front of me makes it a lot easier to give directions to the characters in the story. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Jess! I've always had a terrible sense of direction and I'm not a great map reader, so that may explain why I got my characters lost when sending them from place to place.

  3. I just got some revision notes back, and they rightly suggested that I make a map of my setting to avoid contradicting myself :) Great post!

    1. Nice! Really does help in keeping things where they're supposed to be. Good luck on your revisions!

  4. Oh, I'm so jazzed by this idea. I'm going to jump right on it.

  5. Thank you for this! Working on a new book and will do the map.

  6. I've scribbled out maps out of necessity, yes, but they don't look as nice as yours! :) Thanks for the fun and informative thoughts. I LOOOOVE the cover of the book! What a sweet elephant, and the whole thing is done in a nice style.

  7. Great post! For the project I just finished, I had it set in a location similar to the Alps between the Loire Valley and the top of the "boot" of Italy. Whenever I needed help with distances and how long it would take to travel, maps saved me.

    Now I'm working on a place set in medieval Belgium. So helpful to have pics and maps all over the internet!

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