Friday, March 14, 2014

The Map Game

This is an exercise that I came across in creative nonfiction circles. It is meant to evoke forgotten memories an details.  Kind of an idea generation exercise for memoir-ists.  However, I think it is a great jumping off point for fiction writers. 

Step 1.  Take a blank piece of paper and put a small x in the middle.  That X represents a place you lived as a child (or just a long time ago).

Step 2.  Start filling in places all around it.  Where's the school or bus stop? Where's your best friend's house? Where is the cranky neighbor who yelled at you for picking his flowers?

Not to scale, and also upside down (South is at the top)

This exercise tends to evoke long forgotten memories.  It also can help flash out memories.  For instance, when drawing a map like this, I found lots of very blank areas that didn't evoke anything, but when I started thinking about my friends, I would recall, "Oh yeah, that kid lived there... and yeah, his mom bred Siamese cats, and that's where we got Dodger.... and remember the discussion of that one litter that was a mix of Siamese and non-Siamese kittens?"

And this brings me to the first way this is useful to the fiction writer:

I will likely use that discussion of the Siamese kittens in one of my romantic suspense novellas -- the discussion was whether the mom cat had, um, been walking out with a mixed-breed tom, or several different suitors of different breeds.  The breeder was certain it had to be several, because she thought eye color and coat color came from different genes, and the Siamese color kittens all had blue eyes.  (She was wrong in this:  Siamese coloring is determined by a kind of albino gene that is heat sensitive.  This same gene also turns eyes blue, and it's responsible for the weak eye muscles that make many Siamese cats cross-eyed.)

This is an ideal sort of memory for my heroine -- because one of her relatives would like to believe she is the bastard child of an unfaithful wife.  The memory of the discussion of kitten parentage evokes both character and information, as well as some thematic elements.

And... memories are maleable things.  Often, when we recapture some image from childhood, we only half remember it. We often can't even be sure we remembered right or understood it at all.  This makes for great fiction writing tools, because we can fill it in in all sorts of ways.

The House Map

Another version of this exercise can be to draw the plan of a house you lived in as a child. (Or a classroom, or other place you spent a lot of time.)  You can include the yard or barn.  Where was your room? Are  there any rooms you don't remember well, because you didn't spend time there?  Where were you when you first saw The Wizard of Oz on TV?  Where were your for your birthday party?  Sketch out the furniture you remember.

One of the reasons I like this one better than the other is because it can evoke the patterns of life.  How and where we eat.  Where we spend our time.  How we play and work.  (As I went through a few of these exercises, I was surprised to realize that throughout most of my childhood, I didn't use furniture.  I spent much of my time on the floor.)

The Geography of Your Story

Fantasy writers like to draw out maps of their magical universes -- The lair of the dragon, the mountains, the dark wood, the trail through the badlands.  This is fine for a "road" story where your characters are traveling.  It can also help with world-building, to help pin down details.

However, as with the exercises above, I think that smaller maps, or house plans, can help all kinds of writers.  It is the landscape your drama happens in.   Whether it's an action scene, or a quiet melodrama -- your characters are limited and helped by their physical surroundings.

I suppose this is why the Golden Age mystery writers often included maps of the crime scene in their books -- a tool for keeping track of the clues and action.  But I think of it as even more than that.  Setting is something the characters work with.

I always think of the wonderful scene in the first act of Dial M For Murder: when Ray Milland invites the man he hopes to hire to commit murder into his house and lays out his plan.  Milland's character uses that space first to set the man at ease, then to manipulate him, and finally to rehearse the murder which will happen later.  (I talked about this use of space in a post about Hitchcock and Creative Limits.)

Character's Houses

Although I don't often do maps of my character's houses, I do pause to think about the layout.  I like to feel as much at home in their houses as they do.  Karla's house, in The Man Who Did Too Much, is based on my grandmother's house (but with a bigger kitchen).  Scenes that take place in that house are often very dynamic, just because I have a feel for  it and I find the characters constantly move around within it -- even in a non-action scene.

Mick and Casey don't have a house, but because they are prone to get into action scenes, I almost always have to figure out the plan of every barn and hotel, and saloon and ranch house they may encounter.  (Because sure as shootin' Mick is probably going to have to leap in or out of a window.)

And, of course, every house reflects the owner in some way.  I was thinking about this as George buys a house at the end of The Man Who Did Too Much -- I have a feeling that house is going to ALWAYS be under construction.  And the furniture will change constantly. (Though in the next book it appears he doesn't have any furniture.  Except lawn furniture and a fully appointed professional kitchen.)

So, take some time to draw out some maps -- real ones, imaginary ones.  Don't forget to do small maps of small details, like rooms, and not just where the mountains and dragons are.  You find so much in little things.

See you in the funny papers.


chacha1 said...

I like maps. :-)

When I'm writing, I always take some time to imagine the physical setting I have some action taking place in.

In part this is because I don't want to take all day describing it. It's not all that fascinating to read about how the two bedrooms branch off from a short hall behind the bathroom, but you need to know that sometimes ... I try to think it through and then use the fewest possible words to point the reader to where the character is going.

Maybe it's from writing a screenplay. You want the character to clearly be inside or outside this or that location, but it's up to the camera to show the location; what's important on the page is what the characters do and say.

My first novel was written before I tried my hand at a screenplay, and when I went back to rewrite, acres of description came out.

Thanks for this and other great thought-provoking stuff!

The Daring Novelist said...

Yep, you don't actually have to describe. You just have to KNOW.