Everybody loves a good map at the front of a book. I got a little obsessed with them a few months ago when I started a new pinterest board of literary maps. Soon the good people of Twitter weighed in and I got to see a lot more brilliant examples, including a few by Thomas Flintham for Piers Torday’s Last Wild books. So I was very excited when the author Abi Elphinstone contacted me to talk about her new book The Shadow Keeper, and unveil its wonderful map also by Thomas Flintham…
At what point do you start thinking about a map?
After I’ve read a fairytale, thought of an unusual (and outdoorsy) culture to explore and been on an adventure to unearth that world, I draw a map. I won’t have a plot in mind at this point but I will have a head full of places my characters can visit. For The Shadow Keeper it was caves, fishing villages, fjords and waterfalls and more recently, for an upcoming Arctic series, there were glaciers, ragged mountains and frozen seas.
I sketch the places I have visited onto paper then I start imagining my main character journeying from one setting to another. Perhaps they are chased along the coast, find themselves lost in a forest or are held hostage in a cave. As soon as I doodle these character movements across my map, a plot starts to emerge.
I then break my fictional world down into smaller maps – the interior of a cave, a sitting room inside an old fishing cottage – and sometimes I even draw the whole world onto an ordinance survey map to make sure the geography works. I’m creating an imagined world but it has to be every bit as believable as our world.
Does it help you when writing if you can visualise the places you are writing about?
Absolutely. On the one hand, I travel because I am full of wonder at our incredible world and, as author John Muir said, ‘The world’s big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark’ but on the other hand, I travel because my adventures, and the dozens of hand-drawn maps that follow them, bring my stories to life.
If I’ve learnt how to carve catapults from ash, sculpt knife handles from hazel, fashion bows from yew and fletch arrows with buzzard feathers with one of Britain’s last ‘real’ Romany gypsies I can picture my main character, Moll, doing the same. And if I’ve abseiled into a cave in the heart of the Brazilian jungle, I can imagine how Moll and her Tribe would feel encountering caves filled with stalactites and brooding shadows.
I’m dyslexic and my processing skills are dreadful so I crave visual prompts throughout the writing process; my adventures spark the ideas for fictional worlds but it’s my maps that anchor them into a plot.
If you could travel to Moll’s world where would you most like to visit?
I would love to have an hour or two in Moll’s Tree Fort, shown in The Dreamsnatcher map – at night preferably so that I could listen to the tawny owls calling from the yews. And in The Shadow Keeper map, I’d like to camp out in Little Hollows, the cave Moll and her Tribe are hiding in. There are hammocks strung up inside alcoves there and a secret tunnel that leads out into the sea…
What do you most like about Thomas’s maps?
I love the sense of adventure his maps conjure up: secret coves, tall ships, waterfalls and forests. The Shadow Keeper map makes me want to climb inside that world, grab a kayak and charge off Devil’s Drop waterfall. And the arrow at the top right ‘To The Northern Wilderness’ feels like a promise – an agreement between author, illustrator and reader that the story still has places to go. Cue mountains, lochs and sprawling moorland in Book 3…
What is it about maps in books that particularly appeals to you as a reader?
I grew up in Scotland where I spent most of my childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens and if my Dad came into the kitchen holding an ordnance survey map, I knew what that meant: we were going on an adventure – up onto the moors to look for eagles’ eyries or deep into the glen to hunt down hidden waterfalls. Similarly, the maps I encounter in books feel like a gateway into the adventure. They set the tone for movement (down coasts, up mountains, across marshes) – and peril.
Some people argue that maps reign in the imagination because they presuppose a setting for a reader. But I disagree. A map might offer up a forest but the reader tells you what the trees smell like. A map might present you with a sea but the reader tells you exactly where the mer creatures are swimming. I still follow character’s journeys through literary maps with my finger and I can tell you exactly where Jill Pole met Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle, on the Marshlands by the River Shribble…
What are your favourite maps from other children’s books
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia (for the glimpse of Cair Paravel overlooking the Eastern Ocean),
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth (for the excitement of Lost Realms).
Philip Pullman’s Oxford (for showing me which back streets Lyra was hurtling down).
Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart’s The Edge Chronicles (for positioning a kingdom at the very edge of the world).
And Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother map (for re-imagining Scandinavia).
Which mapped world would you most like to wander around in?
Narnia. No moment in literature has affected me so powerfully as the moment Lucy Pevensie pushes open that wardrobe door (except, perhaps, Lyra riding Iorek over the Arctic ice plains). And I think a world that starts in a wardrobe, moves into the Western Woods and then builds into the mountains of Ettinsmoor deserves not just a wander around in but a good long sit and stare.