Over the next year, I am introducing an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
This post from July 2013 and really is just a fun little tidbit. It is nostalgic for me in a couple of ways. First, this was my first post to be “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress. As a result, it had hundreds of shares, likes, and comments by other bloggers, creating digital connections I still have today. Second, this five-year-old post about my own work as a “speculative cosmographer” reminds me of the mouldering manuscripts in my digital wardrobes. I hope over the next year to be able to print more of these business cards.
If I were to print a business card for what I do as a fantasy writer, in the section called “title” I would put, “Speculative Cosmographer.” Fancy title, eh?
Well, broken down, it really just means fictional world-builder. When I write, as all fantasy writers do, I create a world that is consistent within itself. These “Other Worlds” may have their own languages, beliefs, sciences, social structures, laws, and arts. When the author does this well, as in J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Middle-earth, C.S. Lewis‘ Narnia, or Ursula Le Guin‘s Earthsea, the world must rhyme with itself, if you will. It cannot have jarring inconsistencies or tears in the social or scientific fabric that betray the authenticity of that world. The boundary between that world and our own is clear. Middle-earth has some connection to our world today, but you won’t find it accidentally by taking a wrong turn on Crescent Ave.
There are some threshold worlds that are connected with our own, but separate in key ways. We see this in urban faërie tales, like Holly Black’s work–most accessible are The Spiderwick Chronicles and Tithe–but also in J.K. Rowling’s Hogwartsian world as she layers England with unseen magic, or Madeleine L’Engle‘s Time Quintet, which plays with concepts of space and time focused around a small New England town.
These are fictional worlds that layer upon our own world. But many of our greatest fictional universes are places set apart from Here-Now, and so will typically have a unique geography.
And with a unique geography comes unique maps, and I love maps!
I do like real maps: pulling down the over-sized Atlas of the World from its shelf and looking up Burundi on a carpeted floor; carefully refolding a road map of Maine; pouring over the complex web of lines that make up a Tokyo highway map. I like maps.
But I adore fantasy maps. Half of my time reading Tolkien is spent running my finger along the road from the Shire to Mordor on an onion paper map of Middle-earth I bought at a poster fair on campus. We laminated our coloured map for Narnia for my son’s room as we went through the seven chronicles, and my copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist was purchased precisely because the version next to it lacked a map. Maps make fantasy reading so much more enjoyable. After all, what would Discworld be without flyleaf cartography? How would we know where the Woozle wasn’t if we didn’t have a map of Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood?
So it was with delight that I stumbled upon Mara Valderran’s blog on There and Draft Again, entitled “Creating Your Fantasy Bible: A Lesson in Geography.” Mara is discussing how one creates a fictional world:
“Geography plays a more important role than most people realize. Even if you don’t have your characters traveling across the lands on an epic journey with a rag-tag group of hobbits, dwarves, and elves, it is important that you know where your characters are coming from and who their allies might be.”
I agree completely. This is why I began a recent fantasy book with a map–a badly drawn one, but a map nonetheless. The valley in The Curse of Téarian is essential to the story as each of its natural borders–woods, sea, mountain, and plain–individually create a different tension in the storyline. The story is authentic to the geography, or at least I hope it is. In this sense, Mara is quite right.
Also included in Mara’s blog is Dan Meth‘s Fantasy World Map. It is, of course, just a fun project–a poster that geeks like me can order from his site. But the map itself shows the tactile nature of world-building. The lands of imagination can be charted, measured, taken from the multidimensional realities of an author’s complex brain and stretched into two-dimensional view. The Land where Oz is north of Middle-earth is the world-builder’s sketchpad, the vocation of a speculative cosmographer.
As someone who studies how people build fantasy worlds, I am in that sense a “Speculative Cosmologist.” That, of course, just a fancy way of saying I love how these worlds come together in language, social structure, physics, and geography. But, besides the great fun of mapping out these worlds, the title sure looks good on a business card.