Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

A Toy for the Spatially Confused Writer

By Jon Chaisson
2004, Jon Chaisson

I've been drawing maps since I was young.  I believe I picked up my love for cartography from my father's collection of local maps through the ages.  I'd see my street in one map, and in another, much older map it would be nothing but a field.  Still other maps, the green geographical survey ones, would indicate the hills, mountains and the valleys in my town in fake 3-D.  I'd spend hours, intrigued, looking at these things -- so much that they'd influence me enough to go out into the dirt patch of my side yard and start carving hills and roads for my matchbox cars.  I got quite good at carving roads, and when I got older I carved them on the paper covers of my school books.  To this day I still draw maps.

Once I started writing, however, I ran into a problem.  When it came time for worldbuilding, I would draw maps of where I thought everything would be, judging locations from my imagination.  A small residential area I thought was a good few miles from a bustling city center ended up being a half a block away.  A large tower I thought would dominate the middle of the skyline ended up being way too close to a forest.  My map ideas are good; I'm just spatially confused when it comes to imagining where everything should go.

A few years back I found a wonderful bit of software called TopoUSA, made by DeLorme.  This program takes digital versions of those geographical survey maps I used to love looking at and makes them interactive.  You can create 3-D versions of the maps -- a feature I'd always wished someone would create when I was a kid -- that you can tilt and turn in any direction you wish.  The latest version of this software includes satellite photo maps that you can also manipulate, which really bring out the lay of the land.

As I played around with the program, locating places I knew and making 3-D versions of them, it dawned on me that this would be the perfect writing tool for me.  I could figure out what the topography of my fictional landscape would be like by overlaying it on an existing one.  Not only could I judge where I was in relation to specific points, I could also add unexpected things I'd missed, like a hill in the distance or the actual direction in which my character faced.

Since then, I've used this program repeatedly for worldbuilding, especially when I'm writing a story that takes place in a real town or city.  While roadmaps do help in that respect, this software goes one step further and shows me what the landscape actually looks like.  This is an indispensable program that, while intended as an interactive road atlas, gives my stories that much more reality when I use it.  And when I'm not writing or working on worldbuilding, I can certainly spend enough time searching its database and perhaps discovering yet another place for another story down the road.

You can find information on this software, along with screen captures of sample maps at  The latest is Version 5 and comes in either CD-ROM or DVD format.  There are versions catering specifically to certain parts of the United States, but there is also one available of the entire country.  It is expensive (the National version is $99.95, the Regional versions are $49.95);  however, the price more than makes up for the traveling you would otherwise have to do to research your setting. This is a wonderful resource for writers who want their landscape to be as real as possible.

DeLorme TopoUSA