Maps and fantasy

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Monday musings on fantasy writing

By Scott Bury

A map is a necessary feature of any fantasy novel.

Tolkien’s map from The Hobbit

Ever since Tolkien and Lewis, and maybe before, every fantasy novel has a map at the beginning or the end of the book.

It’s not necessary, but I find a map often helps. I also think a good map would help with any historical fiction as well as some others, to show the reader the relationships between settings in any story, to give an idea of how close or far apart key locations are. 

The trouble is, with a lot of fantasy novels, the map is childish looking. Totally unsatisfying for anyone who knows the first thing about maps.

It seems that every fantasy writer thinks that Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of the maps in The Hobbit, set the rules of cartography. 

But they’re not as good at drawing maps as Baynes. As a result, their maps are not detailed, nor realistic nor, more importantly, believable.

One good example is the map of the fantasy world in the bestselling Eragon by David Paolini. Obviously inspired by the maps drawn by Tolkien and Baynes, it’s particularly unsatisfying and child-like. It displays a lack of understanding how geography and geology work. 

This is not the only example. All the writers of fantasy seem to think mountains look like individual little cones, sometimes topped with a charming snowy peak. Rivers conveniently go through cities, which always have a hill for a castle with four towers in it. 

Coastlines are remarkably smooth, and borders between kingdoms are regular, rather than the tortuous, twisting and contentious messes you can see in virtually every part of the word, shaped by centuries of warfare and politics. 

Likewise, the societies were always limited and simplistic. There is a good kingdom and an evil kingdom. Their allies are also either good or bad, but less extreme. Tolkien, Lewis, Pratchett, Turtledove and most others follow this trope. George Martin is the one author who comes close to reflecting the complexity of international relations and dynastic politics in his Song of Ice and Fire series. But even that is not as complex, nor as far-reaching as the real ancient world was.

The sophistication of ancient societies

The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, knew about China (which they variously called “Qin” or “Seres.”) Rome traded with India, and with far-off places like Abyssinia and Axum. Roman writers listed far-flung tribes in Scandinavia and what is now Russia, as well as in Africa. Their geography extended far beyond the maps of most fantasy writers. 

Maps and direction

Dissatisfaction with maps was part of the inspiration behind my first-published novel, The Bones of the Earth. When I began writing it, many years ago, my children were quite young and seemed to like stories about dragons. So we got a few movies and books, but somehow, they all seemed to follow a few well-worn tropes. The dragons were all friendly, or at least amenable to human direction. 

But that’s not what dragons meant to me. A little reading about the mythology involving dragons reveals them to be immensely powerful creatures, as well as very intelligent. While European stories generally depict dragons as antagonistic. Leave them alone on their giant piles of gold and jewels, or they’ll burn down your town and eat you alive, is the moral.

Asian dragons, on the other hand, are often said to have taught humans agriculture and other wisdom. They’re still not friendly, though. Certainly they are not suitable as pets.

Inspiration

All of this inspired me to do something different.

I guess it started with the map. “How can I make a map look more realistic?” I wondered. Eventually, I found the obvious solution: use a real map.

Which then led me to the next decision: set the fantasy story in a real place. And what is more fantastic than the Dark Age?

Current thinking dismisses the concept of the Dark Age of history. There are plenty of records from the time following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In fact, the idea is highly western-European-centric and ignores the splendid civilizations that persisted through the years 476 to 800 CE: the Sassanid Persian Empire, China, Japan, powerful and sophisticated civilizations in India and Africa and the Americas. 

But it’s still a powerful, romantic idea, a great place for stories.

So that’s what led me to set a fantasy series in the Eastern Roman Empire around the turn of the seventh century CE. 

And it has an awesome map, and I’ll use it in my upcoming sequel, The Children of the Seventh Son.

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#StayHome author reading

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It’s still important to stay home and stay six feet away from others as much as possible to control the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

To help break up the feeling of covisolation, BestSelling Reads authors continue the live readings from their books. Last week, Scott Bury read from his first published novel, the historical fantasy The Bones of the Earth.

The Bones of the Earth

The Dark Age, eastern Europe: the earth has decided to rid itself of humanity with earthquakes, volcanoes and new plagues. Civilizations, even the mighty Roman Empire, crumble under the pressure of barbarian waves that are fleeing worse terrors.

Rejected by his own people, pursued by a dragon, young Javor heads for Constantinople, the centre of civilization, looking for answers to the puzzle of his great-grandfather’s dagger and the murder of his family.

On the ancient, crumbling Roman highway across haunted, deserted Dacia, Javor rescues the beautiful Danisa from a human sacrifice. He cannot help falling in love with her. But Danisa has her own plans, and when she is kidnapped again, Javor has to wonder: what is the connection between his dagger, his lover and his enemies?

For the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, you can buy it on sale at Amazon.

Or download it for free from

Scott Bury

can’t stay in one genre. After a 20-year career in journalism, he turned to writing fiction. “Sam, the Strawb Part,” a children’s story, came out in 2011, with all the proceeds going to an autism charity. Next was a paranormal short story for grown-ups, “Dark Clouds.”

The Bones of the Earth, a historical fantasy, came out in 2012. It was followed in 2013 with One Shade of Red, an erotic romance.

He has several mysteries and thrillers, including Torn RootsPalm Trees & Snowflakes and Wildfire.

Scott’s articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in Canada, the US, UK and Australia.

He has two mighty sons, two pesky cats and a loving wife who puts up with a lot. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

Learn more about Scott on his:

Website   |   Blog    |  Facebook    |   Twitter

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Genre Wars by Frederick Lee Brooke and Scott Bury

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collateral damage hi res cover (2)

Fred:

You’re an author who has written in four or five different genres, isn’t that right?

Scott:

I don’t feel constrained by genre. While my first book, The Bones of the Earth, is often called “epic fantasy,” I wrote it to break a lot of the conventions of epic fantasy. My second book, One Shade of Red, is a spoof of 50 Shades of Grey and is unabashedly erotic. I have also published some short stories that could be called “urban paranormal,” but are ultimately love stories. And there’s the children’s story, Sam, the Strawb Part.  My work-in-progress is a novelization of my father-in-law’s time in the Red Army from 1941 to 1946.

Fred:

Do you feel as though you have a different set of readers for each of your books, or do your readers cross over right along with you?

Scott:

I don’t think that my readers cross with me. I don’t have a huge following, yet, and those who liked my first book, I don’t think have read the second. So from a marketing perspective, it’s probably not smart to hop across the genre boundaries that way.

Fred:

Yet you feel compelled to do it anyway? Why is that?

Scott:

Bones of the Earth   by Scott Bury

I just have ideas for stories and characters that I want to write down. Part of what drove The Bones of the Earth was my frustration with the repetitive fantasy genre, with the same tropes being invoked to the point of cliché. But most of the inspiration was a desire to write a story about dragons for my two boys and to incorporate both of them in it.

Sam, the Strawb Part was inspired by my younger son when he reached that stage where kids mumble and slur their words, and he also became very rough on things like bicycles.

Whether those stories fit into one genre or another just isn’t part of my writing process.

So Fred, what genre do you feel you write in, if any? When you’re asked “what kind of books do you write, in five words or less,” how do you respond?

Fred:

I have a lot of trouble with the whole concept of genres. Take some of those old classics you read in high school or college — like The Great Gatsby. Murder mystery? Why not? What makes it literary fiction? What about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? It’s a mystery, it’s a thriller, it’s a love story, it’s a saga, it’s literary fiction.

As a reader, I’m looking for a good story, good writing, interesting characters. This can happen in a Stephen King horror novel like Insomnia just as well as it can happen in Christine Nolfi’s Treasure Me. That being said, it’s helpful to me as a reader to know from the book blurb (or the cover design) what the main genre of the book is. But I like to be surprised and discover hints of other genres within the main one.

Scott:

You didn’t answer the question.

Fred:

FrederickLeeBrooke_DoingMaxVinyl1-200x300Sorry! My three books – Doing Max Vinyl, Zombie Candy, and Collateral Damage are mysteries. A case gets solved in each of them, although they are unconventional stories, to say the least. People who are expecting a hard-boiled PI or a mirthless police procedural are not going to be satisfied with my books. I am going for humor as well, the kind that arises from absurd situations and people betraying each other. My new release, Collateral Damage, comes closest to a traditional mystery since there is a murder. But even in this book, the love triangle is more the essence of the book than the mystery.

Scott:

I also dislike genre definitions. Who came up with them, anyway? And then, it seems that if you choose to write within one, the conventions of the genre can be limiting to the writer — especially if you listen too closely to the “beta reader” critics. When I posted a sample of my first book to one reading circle online, I got responses like “This is very well written, but it doesn’t ‘feel’ like YA fantasy to me.” Well, it wasn’t supposed to — I consciously tried to break the boundaries of genres.

When it comes to crossing genres, I hope to bring readers with me — to expose people who read strictly in one field to ideas from others.

Fred:

Who are some authors who have changed genres and brought readers with them? Stephen King comes to mind, but I’m guessing he had lots more readers for his horror classics than for the more recent books.

Scott:

Ray Bradbury never stayed within the science fiction genre, but redefined it to fit his stories. And one of my favorite Bradbury books is Dandelion Wine, which is definitely NOT s/f.

Fred:

That’s interesting. Afraid the only Bradbury I’ve read is Fahrenheit 451. But for me the question is: would the same readers read his sci-fi books and then go and read Dandelion Wine as well?

ScottScott:

I think they did. Bradbury had a unique and strong style, and that, I think, was part of the appeal. His readers were loyal. So when they saw another Ray Bradbury book — back in the days when publishers promoted their authors — readers reached for it.

Fred:

I think we’ve hit on a core question for readers of the blog, Scott, namely: can they think of any author they love whom they have followed into a different genre? Carl Hiassen also writes children’s books, but I said to myself, why bother? I don’t want to read children’s books by Carl Hiassen.

Scott:

You might, though, read one to your kids. That may have been Hiassen’s strategy, but I suspect that he just felt like writing a children’s story. And writers who do things like that may be the key to breaking down those artificial barriers between genres.

Let’s turn this discussion over to the readers, particularly those who prefer one or two genres over others: what would tempt you to read outside your favorite genre?

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UseThisScott Bury is an editor, journalist and author based in Ottawa, Canada. His books include One Shade of Red and The Bones of the Earth — both of which break the rules of two very different genres.

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