I recently had to take a trip out of state to an unfamiliar area. I’m a recent convert to the delights of GPS, so I traveled without fear or fore planning. I just got in that rental car and drove.
I got to my destination safely and without confusion, but I was also a little disconcerted. I hadn’t used a map, so I hadn’t known even the direction in which I headed, since a downpour obscured the sun. If it hadn’t been for the road signs, I wouldn’t have known if I was driving north or south.
I thought of a blog post by Barbara O’Neal that I’d read recently. She describes how novelists draw maps of their fictional worlds so they know what everything looks like and how everything and everyone is placed. I’ve done that myself. I once used graph paper to draw in scale the room where my characters were going to have a shootout. If they stood this far apart, what were the odds that the villain’s gun would shoot straight at that range? I moved the furniture around to give my hero more cover (would it work if the doorway was a little more to the left?), and I drew lines in different colors to show how everyone moved in the course of the scene.
The sense of place—how the room looks, or where we are when we’re driving down the highway—is powerful. And it’s hardwired in our brains. O’Neal cites research about neurons in our brains called “place cells” that help us navigate our environment, reminding us of where we are, how far we’ve come, and how to find our way back home. Each neuron remembers one place, that’s it. So every time you go someplace new, you add neurons that remember that location. And the old neurons don’t go away, you just keep adding new ones.
And there’s more: When scientists at University College of London studied taxi drivers, they discovered that the section of the brain called the hippocampus was larger in the taxi drivers than in people who weren’t taxi drivers, and the longer the taxi drivers had been driving, the larger the hippocampi. The hippocampus, primarily known as the center for memory, is part of the limbic system, which regulates emotion.
If you draw a map of your fictional town, or the room where your characters will have a shootout—as you go over it repeatedly, writing and revising—you create new neurons, real neurons, even if the map is of an imaginary world. As O’Neal says, because you create neurons, you also connect emotions to that landscape. And that’s powerful both for writers and readers.
O’Neal has a lot more to say about it, with more links. Check out her post.
In the meantime, I’m not relying solely on GPS anymore. When I go someplace, I’m looking at a map first. What about you? Do you map your books?