February 5, 2020

Map It Out

By Sarah Sundin, @sarahsundin

Author of The Land Beneath Us

In the course of our careers, novelists practice many professions—psychologist, historian salesperson, and graphic designer to start with. But how about cartographer?

Have you ever had your heroine gaze out her kitchen window to the street in one chapter—and to her backyard in the next? Or have you ever had the locations of banks and groceries and post offices shift during your novels? I’ve found these things in my first drafts.

The solution—map it out.

On a small scale, draw floor plans of homes and other important buildings, including locations of things important to your story—telephones, kitchen knives, windows. For my novel The Land Beneath Us, I sketched a floor plan of the heroine’s home and of the library where she works.

On a larger scale, draw a map of the town—or mark up a real map. I often photocopy maps or print sections from online maps, and mark them up. Note locations of homes, businesses, parks, and anything pertinent to your story—whether real or fictional.

This helps you visualize the scene as your character moves about town, and you can use the scenery to prompt thoughts, dialogue, and actions.

If you use a real setting in a historical era, you’ll need to add research to your cartography. A large portion of The Land Beneath Us takes place in 1943-44 in Tullahoma, Tennessee and the adjacent Camp Forrest. Tullahoma still exists, but very little remains of the Army training camp.

I found two maps showing the layout of Camp Forrest. I made copies and pulled out my colored pens. From other research sources, I found the locations of the library where my heroine works, the hospital, the chapels, and the barracks where my hero’s unit was quartered. I marked them on the map—and used that information in my story.

Since Tullahoma still exists, I had the benefit of seeing it in person—but I had to watch out for how things have changed. Businesses open, close, and move. Street names change. Libraries burn down (sob).

While visiting Tullahoma, I had the blessing of meeting a woman whose family had been in Tullahoma for generations, the type of woman who knows everyone and cherishes history. She showed me historical photos—and let me snap shots of them. She told me stories and told me where things were located in days gone by. She pointed across the street to where the train depot had stood, with the King Hotel right behind it—until they realized trains blocked traffic over a major thoroughfare and they moved the depot!

Using her stories, her photos and others, and written material, I pieced together my own map of the town. Not only did this help me stay oriented while writing scenes, but it allowed me to mention vintage businesses and town landmarks, the color that makes historical fiction come alive.

How can you use map-making in your story writing?


"Map It Out" Sarah Sundin (click to tweet)
Sarah Sundin is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical novels set during World War II, including The Land Beneath Us (February 2020), The Sky Above Us, and The Sea Before Us. Her novel The Sea Before Us won the 2019 Reader’s Choice Award from Faith, Hope, and Love, and When Tides Turn and Through Waters Deep were named to Booklist’s “101 Best Romance Novels of the Last 10 Years.” Please visit her at

1 comment:

  1. I have a friend who draws a map of the town with streets and building, the whole nine-yards. I plan to do that with my next book. :-) Good tips.