Hippos, Worldbuilding, and Amateur Map-Making | Tor.com

Hippos, Worldbuilding, and Amateur Map-Making

I once attended a panel on worldbuilding in young adult literature. All of the authors on the panel were young, brilliant, dynamic women. They wore flower crowns and they talked about mapmaking and spreadsheets. They were impressive as all get-out. I have never felt more intensely envious in my life.

I was jealous of their flower crowns, of course. I was also jealous of the easy way they talked about going in-depth on planning color schemes for each chapter they wrote, and the Pinterest boards they referenced for their character aesthetics. I was jealous of the way their worldbuilding all seemed to start from the ground up, because that seemed to me to be a whole other level of professional-writer-ness. My worldbuilding has always leached out from my character development—I write how a character moves, and their movement defines the world they live in. The women on this panel were talking about writing thousands of words about the world their characters inhabited, all before they put a single line of dialogue on a page. They were clearly worldbuilding masters. I was in awe.

It only took seven words for my awe to become fear. One of the writers leaned forward and grabbed her mic. She looked down along the table, her flower crown tipped at a jaunty, devil-may-care angle. Her lips brushed the mic, and her voice was a little distorted by her enthusiasm, and she said “Okay, but can we talk about maps?”

Every other woman on the panel lost her shit. They were so excited. “Oh my god, I spend hours plotting mountain ranges. Do you guys know how complicated it is to figure out the biomes that surround a desert?!” They were squealing and laughing and sharing their own personal recipes for charting landscapes as part of their worldbuilding, and I was horrified. It had never occurred to me to draw a map. I had written a story that wasn’t an epic, high-fantasy journey across nations. Why would I draw a map? Maps are for bigger stories, right? How does one go about drawing a map? I stayed up that night googling cartography. My search was not fruitful. I tucked that particular insecurity into the part of my brain where I catalogue all my shortcomings as a writer, and I did my best to forget about it.

Imagine, then, my abject horror when my River Of Teeth editor, Justin Landon, sent me the following message: “oh hey, btw, do you have a rough map you’ve done for RoT?”

I said no, and he asked me to put something together. I hedged heavily, hoping that if I said “I will probably do a bad job” enough times, my editor might say “oh, ha ha, just kidding, I would never make you do something this hard! Please, go enjoy a cocktail.”

Reader, he made me do a map. I gritted my teeth, grabbed a piece of paper and an existing map of Louisiana, and braced myself for despair. You’ll never believe what happened next.

I had so much fun.

Here’s the map I eventually sent in.


Since I was assured that some kind of legitimate person would put together a good map, I sent something with a lot of Gailey flavor. Which is to say, it was ridiculous. Here are some process notes so you can see how they redacted some of that Gailey flavor to make the map palatable to people who somehow don’t find fjords hilarious.

First, Tor.com map artist Tim Paul removed some of my classic dad jokes:

Next up: a zoom/enhance on my exquisitely rendered feral hippopotamus:

Then, Tim redacted my painstaking onomatopoetic guidelines from my riverboat illustrations:

Also redacted were my restaurant reviews, which got replaced with something “accurate”:

Tim didn’t just redact my silliness, though! Where I just marked “fiddly bits,” they actually added in all the fiddly bits.

And they kept the most important detail of all (and the thing I was most certain would get me a stern note from my editor about taking things seriously):

For all the fun I had drawing my map, it taught me a lot about my story. I altered a couple of major plot details when I realized that, geographically speaking, the things I’d written were impossible. I came to better understand the scale of the story I was telling, and the scope of the impact my characters would have on the world around them. Drawing the map taught me things about my own book—things I would never have understood without facing down the challenge of the fiddly bits of coastline.

I’m incredibly grateful to Tor.com for having someone other than me put together the final map. Look at how legitimate the real thing is! You can tell that, unlike me, the artist put more time and effort into getting the coastline accurate than they did googling “how to draw a steamboat” and “do steamboats go ‘toot toot’ or ‘honk honk’?” But even with my google- and compass rose-related challenges, I’m glad that my editor pushed me to endure this cartographic ordeal. Without it, I would have been working with an incomplete view of the world I built, and River of Teeth would be weaker for it.

I don’t think I’ll ever be passionate enough about mapmaking to earn myself a flower-crown; but as the saying goes, a strong story is its own flower-crown.

Click to embiggen.


River of Teeth and its sequel, Taste of Marrow are available from Tor.com Publishing—there’s also an omnibus edition, American Hippo.
Originally published in April 2017.

Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Their work has recently appeared in Mashable, the Boston Globe, and Fireside Fiction. They are a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to their work here. They tweet @gaileyfrey. Their American Hippo novella series—River of Teethand Taste of Marrow—is available from Tor.com, and their upcoming novel Magic For Liars publishes June 2019.


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