I’ve always had an affinity for maps. When I was in Boy Scouts we once had to follow one through a wooded area to get one of those coveted merit badges. Unfortunately, I failed miserably and got totally lost. Needless to say, I didn’t earn the badge, but I learned a valuable lesson: never underestimate the value of knowing where you’re going and how to get there. Years later, as a teenager coming back from a solo trip to the Michigan sand dunes, I got lost again, but found an old map in the glove compartment of my dad’s car, and after studying it with intense desperation, I managed to get back on track. During Basic Training in the Army, we had to again use a map to negotiate our way through a particularly some dense terrain down at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and that’s when I finally learned how to use a compass. I guess I should have applied for a belated Boy Scout merit badge, but I was kind of busy.
Today, those GPS devices have pretty much replaced maps, but I still carry one when I’m traveling. I long for those days of yore when I would plot out my trips on a paper map and find my way without some computerized voice telling me where to go. I should parenthetically add that more than once the GPS device has steered me in the wrong direction. Of course, I did make a few wrong turns before when I was following the paper map routes, but I look at it as necessary exploration rather than getting lost.
I’ve always been rather impressed by cartography, or mapmaking. Think about what skill it takes to create an accurate representation of the earth on a piece of paper. Think also about the courage of those who venture out where no man has gone before… Or at least where no man took the time to draw a map about it. It took a lot of guts for old Chris Columbus to set sail in those three ragtag ships looking for India, especially when a lot of people were telling him he was going to fall off the edge of the world. And remember the exploits of those cartographical pioneers, Lewis and Clark, who went looking for that Northwest Passage long before any maps existed. How in the world did they find their way? Now those guys were true adventurers. Everybody probably knows that Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, wrote Life on the Mississippi based upon his experiences on those riverboats, but did you know that Clemens studied to be a riverboat pilot? It was a real high-paying job in the mid Nineteenth Century, but it was also a very difficult position to attain. In order to get your pilot’s license, and be able to guide a riverboat up and down the mighty Mississippi, you had to take a comprehensive test showing that you’d memorized every twist and turn, every variance of depth, every sandbar, every outcropping of land along both sides of the river. The reason for this memorization was that night travel was extremely hazardous at the time. The riverboats were primarily made with wood and tar, which meant that they were highly flammable. With no lighting along the coastline, it became extremely difficult to see as you piloted your craft through the water. Lanterns weren’t allowed, either, due to the danger of starting a fire given the volatile coating of tar on the boats. Thus, a pilot had to memorize the two riverbanks. Clemens managed to do so, and passed the test with flying colors, but never got the chance to pilot any of those boats. The Civil War began, and traffic on the Mississippi was halted for the duration of the war. Clemens then went on to work as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, and thus began his great writing career.
In some ways, you can liken the practice of cartography to writing. When you sit down to figure out a story, there is no road map to follow. Actually, there is no physical territory either. It’s all in your head, which is the ultimate uncharted territory. But if you remember the lessons of Mark Twain and me, it helps if you have an idea of where you’re going and how to get there. This is why I recommend doing an outline of your story. It gives you a map, of sorts, to follow. It’s a very helpful guide as you’re writing your story. And if you’re barreling along, following this outline, and you decide that you’ve gotten on the wrong track, or you simply want to change directions, it’s a simple matter to stop and regroup. I usually make three to four changes to my outline with each book. An outline allows me to know exactly where I’m at when I stop for the day, and makes it easy to start the next day. It also keeps me aware of where I’m at in the story, and how far I have to go. The signposts along the way are markers to remind me that I have to put in a bit of foreshadowing as I keep the plot moving forward. I suppose one could call it “fictionalized cartography.” For me, it’s the only way to travel, whether you’re driving to a new location or venturing down that creative writing highway.