Here’s the thing. About 100000 times a year, I read that old maps used to place the words HERE BE DRAGONS in areas that nobody knew anything about. The odd thing is, nobody has ever found an old map with those words on it.
It’s quite possible that I was a cartographer in a previous lifetime, though I’ll claim that I misspoke if I’m ever asked any questions about that by a Congressional committee.
Maps fascinate me. Always have. Maybe this character flaw began when I was growing up and got bored between stops on long family vacations. We always went by car. After a while, the landscape outside the windows got repetitive, so I’d turn my attention to the service station maps we carried and made a game out of predicting when we would arrive at various locations down the road. Now, our cell phones do all this for us. But then it was fun.
In those days, I could predict within a few minutes when we’d pass the cities limits sign of every town down the road. Now I spend time trying to figure such things out when my stories involve people traveling. If a character is walking, riding a horse, on a train, in a car, or flying, when will they arrive where they’re going? I find myself looking up lengths of stride, terrain, and all sorts of things so that a hike in my story takes the same amount of time as the hike would take in real life.
In one recent short story, a father and his daughter were driving from Tallahassee, Florida to St. Marks, Florida while listening to a Scott Joplin recording. I kid you not, I timed out the lengths of the songs with the mileage so I could say stuff like “as they passed through Woodville, such and such a song was playing.”
When I was working on my two Glacier Park novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, I had a hiking map on my desk. Since I had hiked most of the trails in the section of the park where my stories were set, I knew how long it took to get from one place to another if one walked at a steady pace. Along with the map, I had a trail guide. That reminded me what the landscape looked like at each fraction of a mile along the trail.
While many authors look at me like I’m crazy when I mention such things, I don’t think I’m the only author who does this. I read a lot of novels set in a lot of cities and many of them are very specific about what a character can see while walking down one named street or another.
I guess it comes down to wanting to orient my characters in the places where they are just as I have always liked feeling oriented in the places where I am. If you have a compass and a map, but don’t know where you are, you can take sitings of recognizable landmarks and find the answer. I’ve always done this. So now, I’ve passed that trait along to my characters and maybe a few readers. And, if I’m lucky, maybe a dragon or two.