Friday 11 October 2013

An Aid to Plotting: Maps and Thumbnails

Both the world I write about - that of the Late Victorian Era -  I tend to take maps as a starting point not just for imagining the scene of action but for recognising the challenges and constraints it may have for the plot. Realism demands reflection of the realities of space and time, not to mention nature of terrain, seasonal weather and the ease or difficulty of travel in the period in question. These challenges are of particular importance when one is linking the plot of a historical novel to actual events, as in the case of my own novel, Britannia's Wolf, which plays out in the last months of the murderous Russo-Turkish War of 1877/78 when a British officer, Nicholas Dawlish, is seconded to the Ottoman Turkish Navy. The action shifts from the Turkish and Russian Black Sea coasts to the province of Thrace on the approaches to Istanbul from Bulgaria. Given this wide geographical canvas then the process of getting from A to B, even though every step may not be described in detail, is in itself a major factor that may sometimes constrain, sometimes enhance, the possibilities of the plot.

A map is for me therefore an essential tool in the plotting and writing process. That for Britannia's Wolf is shown above. The larger scale map proved essential for plotting the actions taking place at sea, while the smaller inset map, to a larger scale, was critical for describing land action which is critical to the plot. An added bonus in these times is that Google Earth is an invaluable tool for provision of detail on locations one may have visited in the past and for jogging memory. Caution must however be exercised. Given the speed and extent of urban growth in much of the world over the last century extreme care needs to be taken in assessing what may - or may not - have been on the ground in the period of the novel. Major buildings such as mosques, churches and palaces present no problem but envisaging the likely extent of urban sprawl almost a century and a half ago is a greater challenge. What today may be substantial two-lane highways may still follow the same routes as previously, but were in most cases no more than tracks which became all but impassible in rain or snow.

I also adorned (if that is the word!) the map with two thumbnail sketches of ships which play a key role in Britannia's Wolf. I've had good feedback from readers about these, even it they lack the artistic merit of the embellishments such as dolphins and Neptunes with which 16th and 17th Century cartographers adorned their maps. I am at present finalising the text of my next Dawlish Chronicles novel - Britannia's XXX - with the Xs still be be revealed to the reading public. I've also been sprucing up the working map I initially created as a plotting aid and then referred to constantly during the writing process. In this case I'm providing four thumbnails of vessels which appear in the story. I'm reproducing two of them below and I wonder if anybody will be able to deduce from them where and in what circumstances Britannia's XXX is set?


  1. Ah - that's very good. Much better than my last effort :)
    And I've absolutely no idea about the ships...

  2. Hmmm - riverine with the aft paddle wheels maybe. The Danube perhaps?