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?