Before my beloved Pannulus map there was the colorization of Ontyre, the revamped Ontyre map before that. Before my current maps there were all my mapmaking experiments over the course of a couple of decades. Before my maps, there were the countless fantasy maps that influenced, those dating all the way back to Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
There was a lonely child who’d sit for hours paging through encyclopedias. The maps within were a portal to other places. Coupled with pictures and text, I learned at an early age how to turn a flat rendering into a three-dimensional escape.
Welcome to my little map series that I’m using to relaunch the fantasy maps on my blog. Please note that it isn’t my intention to provide a history of maps (or even fantasy maps). This first week, though, I am going to talk about my oldest influences. From there I’ll move onto other fantasy maps, my early efforts, and finally my current renderings of Ontyre.
More important is my intention to advocate for maps in general as a superb tool for writers, especially fantasy writers. There’ll also be some mention of blueprints, diagrams, and sketches, but the focus will be on maps.
So, let’s return to that child with the encyclopedias…
I wish I could say I grew-up in a rich literary environment where I consumed a wealth of fiction and was introduced to fantasy from an early age. Nothing would be farther from the truth. For one, I was splitting my time between households before I even had memories. For another, after some early books like Cat in the Hat and Curious George the books given to me dried up.
Neither of my parents were fiction readers, at least not in the years I knew them. My mother flipped through the occasional magazine, but her preference was for television. My father read often, but it was all nonfiction. His preference was for National Geographic and books about climbing expeditions.
Both households, though, had encyclopedias. I can stretch definitions here and include those National Geographic magazines, which did influence me as much as an encyclopedias did. Too, Nat’l Geo loved to publish maps. An odd side note is that my mother gave me several old maps (also Nat’l Geo) that her family used for reference through the Second World War. I still have them.
Keep in mind my limitations. We’re talking about the 1960s. No internet. My television viewing was severely restricted, not that there was much to watch in those days. Even so, I had a craving for the fantastical. I found that in the movie The Wizard of Oz, which I could only view once per year on Thanksgiving evening. Otherwise, there were short-lived and forgettable television shows. One exception was Star Trek.
Meanwhile, my craving for maps found its outlet in history. I was a sickly child and struggled in school through junior high, yet always excelled in Social Studies or History. Maps crucial for geography and following historical events. I didn’t just read about history, I could see it! I associated maps with adventure and read a number of historical accounts.
Yes, there was Mutiny on the Bounty, but there was also the voyages of Captain James Cook. Not only were his voyages about discovery, but they were about mapmaking. His maps of New Zealand are legendary. How appropriate, from my perspective, that Lord of the Rings was filmed there.
As accurate, though not perfect, as Cook’s maps were, there were many others that had one foot in art. In many ways, those were most important to the child with the vivid imagination who was always seeking escape. In studying those maps, I learned without realizing it. I began to pair certain geographical features on the map with images of their environments.
For instance, the climate here is considered dry, yet there are five rivers nearby. Why? Because of the mountains and all the moisture that falls in the surrounding ranges. So the weather systems can move on to eastern Montana, they drop their burdens—often in the form of snow—and continue on to the plains that are far more dry than we are here.
*A side note. Those same mountains help form the Missouri river that flows across those same plains on its way to the Mississippi and the ocean. The water here flows to the Columbia. I love this stuff!
Adventure. Culture. Fantasy. History. Maps. I had all those influences critical for worldbuilding inside me, yet remained ignorant of the wealth of fantasy fiction in the world. Meanwhile, when bored—and too often while daydreaming in class—I’d doodle simple, fictional maps. I’d then imagine what those places were like.
It’s no wonder my report cards always had the same criticism (besides struggling with English and Math): too often my mind was somewhere else.
In the early seventies my father began his annual treks west to spend a month climbing during the summer. Given the divorce decree awarded me to him for every school vacation, I had to tag along. The idea of climbing didn’t appeal to me, especially given my fear of heights, but heading west from his Long Island home was an opportunity for adventure and learning.
It also allowed me to employ a growing talent. Reading maps. I was only twelve years-old when those trips began, but right away I was Dad’s co-pilot because I loved monitoring our progress and charting our routes. In those days, of course, they weren’t on a phone, but acquired at a gas station.
As if I needed more reinforcement, adventure and maps took on a whole new dimension in my life. Those were difficult years for me, otherwise, and would become substantially worse before I left home. Even so, I cherish my memories of sitting up front in the van studying the current state’s map.
It was thrilling! Always I was glancing ahead on the map and imagining what the landscape ahead would be like. I’d then, time after time, have the opportunity to see if I was right.
Too, for a child from the east coast, the Rocky Mountain States were a fantastical landscape. How wonderful that I could travel such great distances and everyone spoke English! Endless horizons. Geology laid bare. Surging rivers in rocky canyons. Towering peaks. On and on it went.
For all my wonder, there was also my imagination, and maps were my guide.
Those road maps were about more than just roads. They showed boundaries, land features, populations, and countless other facts. The names for cities, peaks, and rivers were tied to culture and history. I could also discern details that were only implied. A road paralleling a river where both followed an irregular course were a sure sign of hills ahead, at the least.
Of course, because I loved history I already knew a little about Native American culture and had read about the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark, the westward expansion, and all the rest. It was while on those trips that I first rode a horse, encountered the Oregon Trail, and glimpsed Missoula, a piece of my heart remaining there.
There was considerable frustration, though, given my imagination and interests weren’t valued. Instead, my thoughts were for me to keep inside. There was no danger of forgetting those experiences, but maps helped keep memories fresh. Years later, those sights helped form the foundation for my Ontyre worldbuilding, along with the countless other places I’ve visited over the years. The Adirondacks, various cities, the coasts, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, the list goes on and on.
It was inevitable that eventually the dam would burst and all my influences and interests would come together. They did, oh how they did, and I’d never be the same.
It happened in 1975. I was sitting on a rock in the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming, the site epic and magical. I was reading Lord of the Rings, and there was a map, and what a map it was. But that’s a story for next week…