From Hometown to Galaxy's End
©2003, Jon Chaisson
o you remember those
days in grade school when you brought home your newly acquired textbooks, and
your first assignment was to put paper covers on them?
The easiest and cheapest covers were always made out of those brown paper
grocery bags. My mother had quite
the collection of them, so I was never without a cover.
I'm sure that for most students the cover would get plastered with band
names, love notes, assignments, and countless scribbles to get a pen working
I must have been the
only kid in the entire school system to plaster his book covers with drawings of
maps. The first question I'd get
was, "Hey, what's that a map of?" and often I'd shrug and say that I
didn't know, I just made it up as I went along.
Their reaction to that was an interesting cross between fascination and
I honestly have no
idea where my interest in cartography came from; I have never even studied it.
I believe it came from digging out roads for my collection of matchbox
cars in the side yard dirt. I
enjoyed drawing from an early age onward, but when a fifth grader bypasses the
usual badly copied caricatures and band logos, and goes straight to drawing
maps, something's a little peculiar. To
this day, I still get people asking me what I'm drawing a map of when they look
over my shoulder. I have one in my
back pocket right now, which I work on during breaks.
I see map drawing as art, rather than a show of geometry and geography, simply
because I draw maps of nonexistent places.
Many of these drawings take their inspiration from real places, such as a
river's path that I drive past every day, or a highway's path that I'm familiar
with. There is always a railroad
stop near the center of town, a fork in the river, a gas station and at least
two churches. There is always a
mountain or at least a high hill nearby, with a path to the top.
I'm especially fond of
geographical maps—the US Census maps with the elevation marks and the
green-shaded woodlands. If I stare
long enough at it, the three-dimensional effect works better than those Magic
Eye posters I've never been able to figure out.
With these maps I see the shape of the land, of what it once was, and how
we as a nation have carved and tended it to our liking.
When creating the
fictional city-state of Bridgetown for my work in progress, I fell back on my
meager cartography skills to create a sprawl that captured the sheer size of a
futuristic city, filled with not only humans but humanoid aliens.
My only prerequisites were a wide river with an island to the south, the
ocean to the east, federal "wilderlands" to the north, a "nullport"
to the west, and a giant tower right in the middle of it all.
Everything else in between was a free-for-all.
There are a dozen
'sectors' in Bridgetown. I used the
history of Boston's suburbs as a parallel for these sectors, deeming them former
cities and towns incorporated into a larger whole.
Thus, each sector had its own unique story, from Branden Hill's academia
to the uppercrust Pullock Street Heights to manufacturing in South City.
These were all off-the-cuff ideas, things I never put much thought into
until I needed them. Once I placed
points of interest in those sectors, such as a college or police headquarters or
a museum, it only opened up yet another avenue (pardon the pun) for me to
investigate. Secondary and tertiary
characters, even entities like companies and stores, came out of the woodwork,
all begging for a bit part.
I soon realized that
the term "worldbuilding" does not necessarily need to be taken
literally; a writer need not create an entire planet, for instance, if he or she
is writing a fantasy that takes place only in Wolf's Glen.
It may not even be an entire town, but a local neighborhood.
You control the world here; take only what you deem important to the
story, but keep an ear open for its secrets and lost legends.
Keep in mind that each
town has its own story. That story
may or may not be the one you write, but it is definitely part of it.
You need not come up with a long, detailed history; you must, however,
create just enough for your characters to react to it in some way.
One of my main characters lives in a dangerous sector of Bridgetown, but
the fact that he's so familiar with it from his childhood leads him to believe
that he wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Another character hates the area because it makes her uncomfortable.
These rules should
exist in equal scale when creating anything from a magical realm to a planet to
a universe. Of course, the regular
laws of physics, logic, and reason might hamper some of your wilder plans, but
above all, your world is only as real as the characters that live and move
within it. It's often the best part
of writing, because once you know where your characters are, chances are you
know how they'll react; thus you'll be able to keep the story moving forward.
I'm still drawing
maps, only now I have a handful of sketchpads rather than book jackets, like the
notepad I always carry around in my back pocket. I never know when inspiration
is going to strike. Map drawing has
become a good meditation, as it forces me to focus on only one thing.
I picture what the land actually looks like in each of these drawings,
from the placement of houses on a street to the rise and fall of each hill.
Creating the setting for a story is very much the same thing.
Perhaps being a
peculiar kid in the fifth grade wasn't such a bad thing after all.