The number one job of an author is to tell a story. In this sense, illustrations such as maps and drawings can be excellent tools for an author, particularly when they are used to immerse the reader more fully into the world.
I’m the type of reader who spends hours, sometimes days pouring over the maps, imagining myself in those worlds and feeling a bit of a thrill as I follow the characters along their journeys. While I also enjoy the occasional drawing of a character, location, or item, seldom do these things resonate with me as well as a good map.
I’m also the type of author who is into world-building: creating a living, breathing world… and maps are a key part of that for me. I’ve had the world layout for Eoriel mapped out for almost twenty years, tweaking details, changing names of cities and mountain ranges, altering coastlines slightly, but always with the same general layout. The same can be said for the Shadow Space Chronicles, I’ve had the general layout of the universe in mind for years, and I’ve spent countless hours drawing out star systems, planet orbits, and the typical routes that ships travel. I do this because I want to know what path the characters will take and why. I want to know what language the locals will speak when the characters stop into a bar or tavern.
What does this have to do with the story? A bit of nothing and a bit of everything. It doesn’t matter in the slightest what language they speak in the bar… but the fact that they have a culture and language adds a level of richness, of reality to your writing. So to, does having a map, of knowing that the characters can take the dangerous mountain pass in the dead of winter or divert two hundred miles to a fortress held by enemies which is the only other way through. Knowing that the characters will need three weeks (or three months) to travel to the next star system not only gives you a way to pace your story, but adds all kinds of fun plot developments and character arcs. What do they do to pass that time? How do they get along together on a tiny ship? Which character(s) snap under the pressure?
Drawings, in the same way, not only help the reader to visualize the world, but it helps you as an author too. Even a crude sketch can help you to develop what a character looks like in order to better describe them, or whether that city in the mountains is nestled in a valley or sprawls across a hilltop. For a reader, a nice drawing can be an added bit, a way to fill in some of the details or even to add to the layer of mystery around something in your story. As they say, a picture can be worth a thousand words.
How do I approach both of these? Well, to be honest, with a map, I want there to be reasons for conflict. Natural boundaries are frequently the dividing lines for nations… but sometimes those nations may disagree on which dividing line they are prepared to accept. A nation that lives and thrives in the jungles may come into conflict with another nation which clearcuts the jungle to establish farmland. Mountain tribes might raid lowlands where the growing season is longer and food is more plentiful… or lowlanders might send conquest parties to seize mineral rich valleys for mining.
Rivers, coastlines, bays, and lakes all serve as methods of transportation and as boundaries. Mountains serve as boundaries and have profound effects upon rainfall and local climate. Forests and jungle can act as barriers or havens, while swamps and marshes serve as foreboding locations and obstacles for characters or refuges for those who need to hide. Deserts too, can serve as both obstacle and refuge, depending on the cultures of the people involved.
Drawings can hint at cultural themes, with stylistic emphasis in order to accentuate descriptions in your writing. A well drawn illustration at the start of the book can set the mood or establish a theme for the reader, putting them in the right mindset.
Maps and drawings are both tools. Learning to use them right is an excellent way to develop your novel and take it to the next level.