Improving Your Story’s Setting with Maps

Posted by on May 28, 2017 in A Writer's Life, research | 0 comments

When it comes to bringing a sense of authenticity to your writing, it’s the little things that matter. Most writers keep meticulous notes on their characters. However, we’re not always so good about noting those little things that make for an interesting setting description. Keeping track of where your characters are physically through the use of maps is one easy way to improve your story’s setting.

Not only do maps help you add in little snippets of realistic detail, they also help keep you from making stupid mistakes. When I read a book, I will often Google a map of the places mentioned. However, if in chapter 1 the heroine turns left down Main Street to get to the library from her house but in chapter 2 she turns right instead, it will 1) snap me out of the story and 2) annoy the crud out of me. There’s really no good reason to make a mistake like that. Since the last thing a writer wants is a distracted or annoyed reader, the easy solution is to have a map in front of you when writing.

What kind of maps do you need for your story’s setting?

At the very minimum I use area maps (states, regions, campaign areas), city (or fort) maps, and any trails or journeys the characters may take. This goes for any kind of writing.

However, things do get a little more difficult when writing historical fiction (as I do), because the maps have to be accurate for the time period. Unfortunately, finding the right maps usually isn’t easy. I spend a lot of time chasing down time-accurate maps, after which I save them in a Dropbox folder and also print them up and keep them in a file folder (helpfully labeled “Maps: Current Book Title”). Why bother with printed copies? Mainly because they’re easier to draw and make notes on, but also because I’m paranoid about computer crashes.

Area maps

Any highly detailed gazetteer will work, but I have found The Benchmark series of maps to be indispensable. Benchmark Maps are made by National Geographic, who have been putting out incredibly informative maps for eons. Not only do they show terrain and every little road and trail all the way down to Joe-Bob’s dirt driveway they also often show historical trails such as the Texas Trail and the Santa Fe Trail (unfortunately, the Pecos/Goodnight-Loving Trail was not one). I wish I could get them for every state.

When writing a book set just before/during/after the American Civil War, The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War is the only atlas you really need. These are not modern maps, but rather the official maps from the federal government’s massive history, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. It gives place names and roads and terrain. More importantly, it gives the names of the people who owned the surrounding farms and businesses. While searching for a location for the Lewis farm in An Uncivilized Yankee, I found this little gem (circled in red):

Dinwiddie CH

W. Lewis Farm. Plate 77, Map 2. The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War

That is why Star can give such detailed, realistic directions to her family’s home. (If you’ve not read the book, Star’s uncle is Will Lewis). “Down the Boydton plank road towards Dinwiddie Courthouse. Just after the sawmill on Quaker Road,” she says. Little things like that go a long way to adding depth to your setting descriptions.

City/Fort Street Maps

It goes without saying that street maps are necessary if your characters are going to be wandering around a city much. Here’s an example of what I did when writing The Slow Trail Home.

My characters have a house in 1884 Laramie. I couldn’t find a street map of 1880s Laramie, but I did find this one:

laramie wyoming 1875

Laramie, Wyoming 1875, looking east

I was also able to find this map as well.

laramie wyoming 1899

Laramie, Wyoming c1899-1900







One of the first things I noticed was that the east-west street names changed at some point. I finally managed to track down that they changed in the late 1880s. Therefore, in 1884 the names were still the same as on the 1875 map.

The house needed to be on the southern end of town, so my characters wouldn’t have to drive through the town on the way back from Colorado. I decided to place my house at the corner of Ninth and S. B Street. Just because I liked the neighborhood.

Now, because I took the time to map out exactly where my people were, I knew that when the men left the house to walk to the depot, they would walk out the front door and turn left up B Street. I knew that it was “nine long blocks from the Union Pacific depot to the wood-framed house on the edge of town.” I also knew that when Danica looks out her window, she could have a “clear view south down Ninth Street.”  Small details, but each one adds a layer of reality to my story’s setting.

Likewise, when I write about military forts as I did in A Great Wide Nowhere and Farewell and Goodbye, having a map is essential. However, finding time-accurate fort maps can be near impossible. One resource I stumbled into by reading the bibliographies of the books I read for research. These are the Annual Report of the Surgeon General to the Secretary of War and the Annual Report of the Secretary of War to Congress. Buried deep in these documents are written descriptions of all the current forts for that year. Thanks to Google Books they’re available (though with a lot of digging necessary). From those and a few military history guides (mainly Forts of the American Frontier), I’ve been able to piece together relatively accurate site plans for such little known places as Fort Sanders and Fort Ellis. Again though, watching your time period is essential. Fort Sanders’ layout actually changed partway through the time period I wrote about, so not all my maps and descriptions matched up. I never could get a firm date for when the change occurred.

 Journey/Campaign/Trail Maps.

If your story has your characters traveling long distances for any reason, then you absolutely have to have a map. More than that, you need to keep it in front of you at all times. Because if you get lost while you’re writing, how can you expect your readers to not get lost? Lost readers are not happy readers.

I had to really focus on this as I was writing The Slow Trail Home. The whole book is one long journey, up a relatively unknown cattle trail. Trying to get a decent map of that trail was a royal pain in the boohickey. I already wrote a whole series of posts on trying to track it down (On the Pecos Trail part 1, part 2, and part 3), so I won’t rewrite all that here.

The bottom line is, using maps will help you create a more detailed, realistic story setting, no matter what kind of fiction you write.

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