“[W]hen we think about maps, we think about external maps. We think about something we can look at. And it is important in a number of ways to place yourself in space. And I mean that either in the three dimensional space or the two dimensional space of a map….But the other thing that I have really come to understand over the years is that when people write…a lot of times when they think about map making, they’re also not thinking about the internal map that they’re bringing to what they’re writing….
So an external map might be a topographical map, where we can see where the mountains and the rivers are, and we can place the cities here and we can gauge how long it will take us to travel from this city to that battlefield or that village…..now these things begin to develop together. But one of the other things that happens is people don’t think about the internal map they’re bringing. And the internal map they bring to their creation, to world creation, and I include myself, is all the assumptions, the expectations, the stereotypes, the things they don’t know about.”
In the following clips, Kate Elliott describes how the traditional cartographic map offers insight into what she calls the writer’s ‘internal map,’ which charts an author’s perception of the history and culture that they draw from in the world-building process.
- In the first clip, Elliott highlights this scene from the Disney film Mulan as an example of an inaccurate internal map. Take a few minutes to research Chinese customs at the time that the film depicts, particularly those regarding etiquette in the presence of the Emperor. Then, discuss the cultural or historic inaccuracies in this scenario. Were these details part of your internal map of Chinese culture at that time?
- Can you think of any examples of how your own internal maps have been projected onto your stories in renderings of other places, cultures, or eras? Reference your writing. What are your own blindspots in topics you like to write about? How might you become more aware of the boundaries of your own internal maps?
- Since writers often absorb new ideas through reading and research, what are some ways you can undertake the process of expanding your internal maps?
- In the second clip, Elliott describes how certain internal maps develop into clichés, stereotypes, and widely accepted popular narratives. This process of oversimplification results in stories she describes as flattened. Take a few minutes to look through the following three short stories. Then, identify which two you think are ‘flattened,’ and which one offers more dimension. Which story elements support your conclusion?
- Keeping in mind your discussion from Q5, write 500 words about three people walking through a town. Who are your characters in terms of race, gender, class, able-bodiedness, and/or age? What does your town look like?
- Reflect on the brief story you wrote for the previous exercise. Now, research those identities and settings (if applicable). How accurately did you represent them? Rewrite your story to incorporate what you found.
- How did your story from (1) and (2) change? What did you learn about your internal map in the process?
- Now that you’ve spent some time thinking about internal mapping and challenging them in your writing, take a moment to think about a familiar cliché or trope in speculative fiction. What are your expectations or assumptions about this cliché/trope? Write them down. Once you have done so, take some time to challenge these expectations/assumptions. Which ones could be changed to add complexity (i.e., to unflatten)? What does that change do to the way that cliché or trope works in a story? Make a list of these effects. If you are working in a group, discuss them with your group members.
- Excerpt from Unconquerable Sun, 2020, Kate Elliott
- Excerpt from “Riding the Shore of the River of Death (A Crown of Stars Story)” in The Very Best of Kate Elliott, 2015.
- A Collection of Other Excerpts from Kate Elliott’s website
- Interview with Kate Elliott on The Fantasy Inn, 2020.
Kate Elliott: But the other thing that I have really come to understand over the years is that when people write, and I don’t mean everyone, but when people write, a lot of times when they think about mapmaking, they’re also not thinking about the internal map that they’re bringing to what they’re writing. I’m trying to think about examples I could give. So an external map might be a topographical map, where we can see where the mountains and the rivers are, and we can place the cities here and we can gauge how long it will take us to travel from this city to that battlefield or that village.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: And especially keeping in mind things like are you on horseback and how long would that take. You have to feed the horses.
Kate Elliott: Exactly. And what the weather is going to be like. So now these things begin to develop together. But one of the other things that happens is people don’t think about the internal map they’re bringing. And the internal map they bring to their creation, to world creation, and I include myself, are all the assumptions, the expectations, the stereotypes, the things they don’t know about. Did you see the cartoon version of Mulan?
Mary Anne Mohanraj: I did.
Kate Elliott: At the very end, when Mulan has succeeded, and she’s driven out the Huns, I guess they were, or the Mongols, I don’t remember. She’s allowed to meet the Emperor, which is like the highest honor you could have. And then because the writers were working from an internal map of what it would be like in the US, they have her hug the Emperor. That would never happen. Never. So when I talk to people about world building I say, first of all, interrogate your own internal map. What are you bringing to the world? Are you bringing assumptions to the world about how people interact? Or are you bringing assumptions to the world about what the setting looks like? For example, I’m going to write an analog Japan, right? So I’m going to have people wearing something like kimonos, and they’re going to carry two swords, one shorter than the other. And they’re going to eat a lot of rice. So these are external map things. But maybe I’m not thinking about what those things mean to the people who are using them. And how do those things relate to how they relate to their world and how they relate to themselves. Maybe can everyone carry two swords? Maybe not everyone can. Maybe some people can only have one sword. Maybe many people can’t have any weapons. And now suddenly we’re beginning to see just from that one thing. Now we’re beginning to see layers in a society.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: What you’re talking about here is so interesting to me. I haven’t thought of it in terms of maps before, but it is reminding me of one thing we talked about: the cultural iceberg. I don’t know you’ve run across that concept. So with the cultural iceberg, at the very top are all these visible signs of culture that are sort of easy to latch on to be it women can’t wear short skirts or whatever it might be. But underneath, there’s all of this taken for granted stuff, this deep culture that you may not ever explicitly note in your story, but it’s going to inform everything. And if you Google actually, you find there’s a whole bunch of different variants of the cultural iceberg that people have approached in different ways and I think it’s interesting seeing what they assigned is above the waterline, right below the waterline.
Kate Elliott: And if you’re thinking about this external map, because narratives that we talk about, narratives that we see in Hollywood for example, and these flattened narratives are also maps. They’re narrative maps, and then they become focused on the external maps. So we get the narrative of ‘women never did anything in the Middle Ages’. And you know, people who say, Well, it’s okay not to have many women and fantasy in epic fantasy because women never did anything in the Middle Ages. They were all pregnant, illiterate peasants who never walked more than five miles from their home, which of course is completely untrue. But if you have that map in your head, and you can’t see that there’s another map, you can’t go there in your narrative.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Right. And I think it creates a thinness, I feel like. If you haven’t mapped out your territory externally or internally, you end up with just sort of a sketch of a story and a sketch of a society and a culture, and it doesn’t have the denseness and richness. George and I were talking about Tolkien and world building and how much depth there was to all of Lord of the Rings and all the background material that he thought through, much of which didn’t make it into The Hobbit or into The Lord of the Rings, It was in appendices, etc.
Kate Elliott: Exactly.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: But he knew it. And it informed the text and so it made it feel real and rich and I think that’s a lot of what grabs the reader or the viewer.
Kate Elliott: I think there is a place for that. And I think there are readers who really want that thinner because they’re more interested in the pacing, the course of events, where one thing happens and then the door opens and then someone shoots a gun. That’s also a story. And I think that’s also okay. But if people are really interested in world building for the sake of creating what I would call an immersive world, where you feel like you’ve really walked through those streets, then I think they have to start with themselves. They have to start looking through their own assumptions, which are barriers to creating more deeply.