Forging the Mappa Mundi | Part 3

(continued from part 2)

Having covered general methods in part one and specific world-building approaches in part two, in this final series installment we shall be looking towards niche cartographic terminology which can be used to build upon cardinal directionality and which also serves to better elucidate the reader (or the forgetful author) as to the general-to-precise spatial arrangements within a given scene.

Distal and proximal: distal means furthest away from, whilst proximal means closest to. The terms are generally used for anatomical reference but can also be used to great effect in geographic spaces.

Latitude: the distance of a point north or south of the equator is its latitude. On a map, latitudes are represented by lines which ring the globe and are known are parallels (ie. the 45th parallel is 45 degrees north of Earth’s equator).

Longitude: the distance of a point on a globe which runs at right angles through lines of latitude that also pass through the poles are known as meridians of longitude. On a map, lines of longitude run north-south from a prime meridian (such as the Greenwich meridian).


Planimetric: that which has only horizonticality and no verticality or that which symbolically represents horizonticality (such as a map) which does not indicate verticality. Distinct from topology due a lack of relief.


Topology: the underlying structure of a general area; the properties of a space that remain constant under natural or artificial depredations. Topologies primarily accentuate horizontal qualities but also suggest vertical qualities (such as through contour lines in a military map).



Forging The Mappa Mundi | Part 2

(continued from part 1)

In part one we covered the rudiments of establishing placefulness in fiction through spatial notation. In this installment we will be expanding upon our previous endeavour by focusing our attention on geographical clarity through directional signifiers.

Cardinal Directions and Landmarks

When attempting to establish geographical clarity in creative writing, think of everything directionally first, as you would with a map. Establish the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) and everything else can be made to follow.

The most obvious and immediately useful directional signifiers are landmarks; buildings, mountains, forests, oceans and celestial bodies, such as the sun, etc. The larger the landmark the easier it will be (generally speaking) to refer to it across the duration of ones text. For example, in my novella, The Silence & The Howl (forthcoming), there is a gigantic coal breaker which sits north-east of the principal setting, a small rust-belt town. The structure is introduced in the first chapter, and as such, establishes both the cardinal directions as well as a point of reference that can be continuously utilized for spatial orientation; by simply describing where the coal breaker is in relation to a given character or object, one instantly knows where north and east are and spatio-temporal orientation is established, such that, if a character moves south, one at the very least understands this is away from the coal breaker and thus away from all those described areas surrounding it.

Fictive Mapmaking

To help better remember the geography of your story, maps are quite invaluable, particularly if the world rendered is quite large and well-traveled. Yet, despite the usefulness of maps to worldbuilding, it is not a very popular practice (next time you are at a bookstore, walking through the fiction section, flip through the front and back covers and first and last pages of works on display, almost none of them will have maps of the world within the story). One of the reasons I induce that the making of maps for fiction is not widespread is that it forces the author to venture into unfamiliar territory, outside of his or her principal skillsets, however, if one finds oneself lacking in the requisite abilities, one may always use Inkscape or a similar, free image rendering program wherein manual dexterity gives way to technical, numerical specification. Of course, if one is daunted by both hand-drawn cartographies AND digitally rendered maps, then one might do well to recruit the aid of a friend or colleague who is more graphically inclined. Remember, the principal purpose of making a map, at the first, is the same reason one takes notes of character bios, landmark descriptions and dialogue; that is to say, it is a spatial note, for the benefit of the author, primarily, and need not be designed for the final work.


Excerpt of The Ebstorf Map; c. 1235.

Forging The Mappa Mundi | Part 1

Of the essentials of a story, characters, theme, style and setting, the latter is perhaps the most difficult for new or dilettante writers to manage. Take for example this first paragraph excerpt from the short story Family Gathering by Paul Beckman from Fictive Dream (a excellent site).

The laughers come first. They always arrive early and announce their early arrival to the hostess who isn’t ready yet for company. They think the hostess will laugh along with them but she won’t. She hasn’t finished cooking, dressing, or putting on makeup. She tells the laughers this and they respond with guffaws. Guffaws are infuriating to the hostess. Meanwhile the host has his first drink of many. The laughers are his wife’s family, not his, and drinking is how he tolerates them.

Though the prose is good, never once does one get a sense of place — one understands that ‘the laughers’ and ‘the hostess’ abide in a house, but we have no idea what the structure is like in anywise. We are not told whether the house is big, small, old new, black, white, brown or purple, classical, neoclassical, modern or experimental; nor do we know what rooms are where nor how they are laid out. All that we know is that some people arrived at a house. The rest of the text is similarly vague as pertains to spatiality. It should be noted that carto-spatial descriptions within a text are not intrinsically necessary; for example, in a poem, wherein the chief aim is to stir some specific passion or passions, one need not delve into particularities of geography; the same goes for something like a hallucinatory scene or dream sequence wherein reality is “off.” However, in a story, particularly in a longform story with a specific setting, it is absolutely pertinent to establish some kind of definitive geographic layout otherwise all movements will be rendered indecipherable.

Compare the previous paragraph to the flash composition The Crossing by Philip Scholz:

“Buenas tardes,” the guard said.

“Hello,” he replied, not ready to try his Spanish. Which greeting was the guard using?

“What is your business?” the guard asked.

“Vacation.” He had no intention to return.

“Your passport, please,” the guard said, holding out his hand.

He handed over the fake one, hoping his shaking hand wasn’t noticed. This was the test. He had to stay calm.

The guard reviewed the passport without a word. Finally, he flipped it closed.

“Welcome to Mexico.”

Exhaling, he took back the passport and kept driving, now a country away from the wife whose throat he’d slit.

Whilst this piece is far shorter, is establishes geography far more quickly and decisively and, most importantly, without going out of its way to do so, by which I mean, at no point in the text does the narrative flow stop for geographic descriptors, rather, they are woven into the narrative in such a way as to maintain it and drive it forward to its terminus. In the latter piece, the author accomplishes placeness through “passport” and “guard,” as well as “Welcome to Mexico” all without ever saying “airport” — which is a testament to the fact that the general cartospatial shape of things is all that is fundamentally needed (in conjunction with some slight induction and deduction from the reader) to establish the mappa mundi — the map of the world.