Note: spurred on by Mark’s excellent comment on my “new house” post, I’m posting this excerpt from my undergrad thesis I wrote in the spring of 2005 (pre-blog). The thesis was called “Pictures Before Words,” and it was about using visual thinking techniques like clustering and storyboarding to create prose fiction. It’s surprising to read back through it now, and realize how much it laid out the ideas I would explore in the next 3 years or so: sense of place and writing as world-building, the connection between pictures and words…thanks to Sean Duncan for introducing me to a lot of the material!

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IN CHAPTER FOUR of Dylan Horrocks’ graphic novel, Hicksville, a character named Dylan Horrocks and a character named Grace travel to a land named Cornucopia to meet its greatest cartoonist, Emil Kopen. Upon their meeting, Kopen refers to himself not as a comics writer, but as a “cartographer” or a “maker of maps.” This puzzles Horrocks, and prompts Grace to ask Kopen to explain. Kopen says that comics are the same as maps because they are “using all of language—not only words or pictures.” Horrocks asks Kopen about the purpose of maps.

“Maps are of two kinds,” Kopen explains. “Some seek to represent the location of things in space. That is the first kind—the geography of space. But others represent the location of things in time—or perhaps their progression through time. These maps tell stories, which is to say they are the geography of time.”

maps tell stories which is to say they are the geography of time

This monologue is quite similar to Scott McCloud’s argument about comics in Reinventing Comics. He argues that space is the form of comics, and time the content: comics work by mapping time.

reinventing comics scott mccloud comics as an artists map of time

In Horrocks’ online article “Comics, Games and World-Building” (highly recommended) he responds to McCloud’s argument by exploring and expanding the theories of James Kochalka. In Kochalka’s comic, The Horrible Truth About Comics (included in The Cute Manifesto), he proposes an alternative definition of comics to McCloud’s: comics as world-building. “Comics are a way of creating a universe.”

comics are a way of creating a universe and populating it with characters using a secret code

Horrocks interprets:

Now, most discussion about comics (or fiction, for that matter) assumes that their main purpose is to tell a story – a narrative that moves through time; hence McCloud’s description of comics as a "temporal map." But here, Kochalka seems to suggest something quite different: that comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.

Even those narratives that would seem to be primarily interested with mapping time, with telling stories, or plots, can be seen in spatial terms. Horrocks’ character Emil Kopen explains to the character Dylan Horrocks that along with maps of geography, he feels that “stories, too, are basically concerned with spatial relationships. The proximity of bodies. Time is simply what interferes with that, yes?”

i have begun to feel that stories too are basically concerned with spatial relationships

In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes that while plot has often been seen as a type of “power war” or “back and forth” that seems to be going on between characters, “narrative is also driven by a pattern of connection and disconnection between characters that is the main source of its emotional effect.” Connection and disconnection are spatial terms; they imply different degrees of proximity.

Horrocks observes that the notion of “world-building” has mostly been popular within the genre of fantasy (i.e. J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth). But Horrocks suggests that “all writers are engaged in ‘sub-creation,’ to the extent that all fiction takes place in a ‘Secondary World,’ no matter how closely it may resemble the ‘real world’ in which we live.” No matter what genre you write in, you can use the same world-building techniques used by fantasy artists and writers.

When we read comics and fiction or watch movies, we are asking the artist to take us into a universe of his making. In the words of Kochalka, “When we encounter a great work of art the physical world fades away as we step into this new reality. We are alive in a living world.” This sounds remarkably similar to John Gardner’s idea of fiction as “a kind of dream” that the reader falls into: “We read a few words at the beginning of the book or the particular story, and suddenly we find ourselves seeing not words on a page but a train moving through Russia, an old Italian crying, or a farmhouse battered by rain. We read on—dream on—not passively but actively."

If writers and cartoonists accept the idea that what they must first do to create a convincing narrative is world-build, the next step is to wonder how they might go about such a thing.

Alan Moore, in the chapter entitled “Worldbuilding; Place and Personality” in Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, suggests that world-building simply means coming up with the working details of your world and environment before you actually go about writing your story. He suggests coming up with

a mass of information about the world and the people in it, much of which will never be revealed within the strip for the simple reason that it isn’t stuff that’s essential for the readers to know and there probably won’t be space to fit it all in. What is important is that the writer should have a clear picture of the imagined world in all its detail inside his or her head at all times.

Moore suggests that gifted writers will avoid dropping huge amounts of detail on the reader at one time, but instead use these details sparsely in each frame, to suggest that there is a world going on outside of the frames of the comic. This idea parallels Scott McCloud’s theory of closure—“the comics creator asks us to join in a silent dance of the seen and the unseen. The visible and the invisible.” The comics reader is required to fill in the details of the world going on outside the comic panel, and this will succeed only if the world is concretely realized by the creator.

My argument is that the artist can see written fiction, comics, and film as multiple disciplines on the spectrum of storytelling. Although they all have different ideas about what a story is and how you build and present a story, if we accept that what each discipline does is world-build, then we can use the term “world-building” to move fluidly between disciplines. When we have the world-building tools and processes mastered from multiple disciplines of storytelling—whether it be drawing in the case of comics, or writing in the case of fiction—we can use these tools and processes across disciplines to generate the worlds that we imagine.

Recommended reading:


map of the story

“When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, when I was 10, 11 years old, the books that I loved…came with maps and glossaries and timelines—books like Lord Of The Rings, Dune, The Chronicles Of Narnia. I imagined that’s what being a writer was: You invented a world, and you did it in a very detailed way, and you told stories that were set in that world.”—Michael Chabon, Interview with the AV Club

My undergrad thesis argued that world-building wasn’t just for fantasy and sci-fi writers—every tale has a setting, every tale creates a world in the reader’s mind—and it explored ways that drawing that world (visual thinking!) can lead to better fiction.

Some of my favorite “lit’ry” books are accompanied by maps.

A recent read, Donald Ray Pollock‘s short-story collection, Knockemstiff, is set in the “real” town of Knockemstiff, right outside of Chillicothe, Ohio (30 miles from where I grew up—if you keep heading north on 23 you’ll get to Circleville). The book includes a nice hand-pencilled map by artist David Cain:

map from donald ray pollock's KOCKEMSTILL

Lynda Barry’s Cruddy contains four maps. Here’s two of them:

map from lynda barry's CRUDDY

And while it was a TV show and not a book, one of my favorite fictional worlds, Twin Peaks, was drawn by David Lynch for the pitch meeting:


Some writers use previously-made maps to help create their fiction: Melville used whaling charts, Joyce used Ordnance surveys of Dublin, and Pynchon used aerial maps.

Poking around the ‘net I found maps for Faulkner’s books, Treasure Island, and of course, Tolkien.

What other favorite books of yours include maps? Let’s get a big ol’ list going in the comments!



From Nigel Holmes’ out-of-print Pictorial Maps:

Before showing the pilot script of his revolutionary show Twin Peaks to executives at ABC television, director David Lynch drew a map to give them an idea of where the action would unfold. The peaks of the title, and the town they name, are clearly visible as white-topped mountains rising out of the modeled landscape. By creating a sense of place, Lynch made the town all the more believable. A straightforward map would have been dull by comparison and might have suggested that there was something intrinsically interesting avout the geography of the place. What was much more important to convey was the mood of the story, and it’s nicely captured in Lynch’s quirky drawing. Not many maps in this book attempt to convey both a mood and data, but it can be done, and Lynch’s map shows that information can be imbued with emotion and retain its factual authority.

And more from Lynch:

We knew where everything was, and it helped us decide what mood each place had, and what could happen there. Then the characters just introduced themselves to us and walked into the story.


We’ll have to wait a little while until Drawn and Quarterly publishes the five-volume set of the complete run of Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek, but in the meantime, there are a bunch of out-of-print collections out there…if you can find them. I’d like to start the week off by showing off a couple scans from two, GIRLS AND BOYS (1981), and EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD (1986).

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Lynda Barry's GIRLS + BOYS

BOYS + GIRLS was Lynda’s first book. Most of it is drawn in a scrawled, punky pen style — a crazy contrast to the fluid brushwork of something like ONE! HUNDRED! DEMONS! The strip was reformatted into a horizontal format, something that Chris Oliveros has emphasized will NOT be the case in the D + Q reissues.

Here I’ve restored her strip, “How To Draw Cartoons,” to its original square format:

"How To Draw Cartoons" by Lynda Barry

Here’s a wacky clip of Lynda reading from the book in the the film COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL:

And here’s a really cool photo of a poster advertising the book from around 1980.

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EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD is a little more refined — it was Lynda’s fourth collection, and the drawings get better and better, but the content is still nutty and hilarious. The gems from this book are these little maps that serve as chapter dividers:



Here’s the strip “What Turns Men On”:


And the strip “How to Catch a Man”:

"How To Catch A Man" by Lynda Barry

I found this King-Cat strip from John Porcellino to be a great match for them:

"Dr. Abbott's Guide To Wimmin" by John Porcellino

Like John P’s KING-CAT CLASSIX collection, I can only think that the five-volume Ernie Pook collection is gonna be nothing short of fantastic.


The book I’m working on includes a kind of memory plot: the main character retrieves his lost memories by retracing his steps, moving through the geographical spaces of his past.

This idea is nothing new: pretty much every character who goes through some kind of trauma in literature deals with it by retracing his steps. Telling his story. Beginning with Odysseus, and more recently, Eternal Sunshine, Memento, Time’s Arrow, Slaughterhouse-Five, etc. These great stories do exactly what they’re supposed to: not only do they give us a map and take us on a journey, they give us a new way of mapping our own lives. (I remember stumbling out of the theater after watching Memento, barely able to read the street signs.)

So this morning I’m reading the good ol’ Science Times, and I get another shocker: according to a recent article published in the Journal of Cognitive Science, “the speakers of Aymara, an Indian language of the high Andes, think of time differently than just about everyone else in the world. They see the future as behind them and the past ahead of them.”

It seems that humans began conflating time and space long before Einstein ever picked up a piece of chalk. Instead of equations, however, we use what are called conceptual metaphors, in which space sits in for time.

Most of us describe the future as ahead or in front of us, and the past as behind us. Until the view of the Aymara speakers was deconstructed, no significant exceptions to this way of thinking about time had been demonstrated….

…the Aymara call the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future.

…the Aymara speakers see the difference between what is known and not known as paramount, and what is known is what you see in front of you, with your own eyes.

The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.

Well, this really blew my mind, and has obvious implications for the story I’m trying to tell. If the future is behind us, and the past up ahead, do we back away from the past, trying to edge closer to the future, but still blind to it? Or do we try to put the past behind us, and are therefore doomed to bump into it in our quest to make it into the future?

I think it also has something to do with comics, another “conceptual metaphor…in which space sits in for time”:

scott mccloud understanding comics page 206 space and time
page from REINVENTING COMICS, quoted by Dylan Horrocks

Of course, Dylan Horrocks and James Kochalka toss this theory on its head: comics don’t just spacially represent time, “comics create a world, a place. Instead of SPACE = TIME, this is SPACE = SPACE.”

I’m not sure where my thoughts are headed at this point, but how curious to me that we must map time in order to conceptualize it. That we all seem to be cartographers, trying to map our worlds…



I was on the phone one day with my friend Brandon. Brandon’s a writer, been a serious one for a lot longer than I have, so whenever I get him in a conversation, I drop a little, “So what’re you working on?” question somewhere in the middle of things, a little bait, to see if maybe he’ll bite and spill the beans.

“Oh, I’m just reading, mostly.” The kind of answer that drives me nuts.

So I said, “Well, what are you reading?”

He told me he was picking out certain authors, and then reading everything that author had ever written. (I think at the time, he was tackling Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, and Ian McEwan.) I freaked out a little bit, and said, “Jesus, man, how disciplined of you! I can’t even finish a novel!”

So I hung up later, and got to thinking about his project. A few days earler, I’d read a line of advice from G.S.: “Find two or three writers that you’re really excited about. Follow their lineage back. Know everything about them. Immerse yourself in those writers.” This really clicked with me.

Since I started working in a library, I’ve been on book overload. I can get any book, anytime. No limits. Always a bad idea. So much to read. So little time. Really overwhelming. But this, this was a really great idea: Take it slow and steady. Saturate yourself with a writer’s work. Figure out who means the most to you right now, and then read who meant the most to them. No problem.

But how to begin? A list seemed too linear. What I needed was a map.

I’ve always been a nut about genealogy. When I was in undergrad, Brandon gave me a book of Carver stories. I fell in love with them. Then I found out our teacher had been taught by John Gardner, the same John Gardner who taught Ray Carver. I started building this goof-ball lineage in my mind…that I was somehow inheriting what had come before me.

A family tree!

So once in a while, when I’m feeling lost, feeling a little schizophrenic in my reading habits, I’ll draw a dorky map like the one above, who I’ve read, who I should read.

Where I am, where I should be going.


Around 10, I stopped in at Mac’s Backs, and bought the new BELIEVER BOOK OF WRITERS TALKING TO WRITERS, as well as the second issue of BCR to show the writing group tomorrow night. Suzanne had just opened and nobody was around, so we started chatting and I showed her Kenneth Koch’s work in BCR, and then she told me about this guy named Kenneth Patchen, a poet/painter who drew “picture poems.” Apparently, a guy named Larry Smith speaking at the D.A. Levy symposium at Cleveland State has written a biography about him. So, that might be something to go to this weekend. Said goodbye and drove over to Joseph-Beth and picked up the new issue of BLACK WARRIOR REVIEW to show the group.

Around 11, in the parking lot of Zagara’s, grocer of the Cleveland Heights literari, I saw Harvey Pekar half-shuffling, half-limping across the parking lot. He looked pre-occupied, so I thought better of shouting, “Yo Harv!” across the lot. I showed less restraint when Meg pointed out Dan Chaon in next lane a couple weeks ago:

ME: Mr. Chaon!
CHAON: (looks up, startled) Hi!
ME: Looking forward to your reading next month!
CHAON: Oh. (What reading?) Oh yeah, with Kelly Link.
ME: Yeah.
CHAON: (Who the hell is this kid?) Well, I’ll see you there, then!
ME: You bet!

A few minutes later I heard him say to the cashier, “Oh, just trying to write. It’s pathetic.” Which made me feel less pathetic.

The celebrities kept coming: the crazy lady who feeds the pigeons behind our building was in the produce section. She smelled like Marlboros, not pigeons.

Got back home around 12, and I had an e-mail from Peter Turchi, who was nice enough to reply to an e-mail I’d sent about maps and world-building. He read a section from my thesis and gave me reading suggestions to check out: 1) Denis Wood’s THE POWER OF MAPS, where Wood argues that maps are temporal, whether they mean to or not, they map spatial relationships in time; and 2) FLATLAND by Edwin Abbott, for its take on the “space/time relationship.”

Turchi also wrote that when he spoke at the University of Greensboro some students told him that a cartography professor there was using graphic novels to talk about depicting time and space; and at the University of Iowa he met a fiction writer who builds three-dimensional models of the settings for his novels. I’m going to try to hunt down these characters.


(from HARPER’S, June 2005)

I’ve been taken lately with maps and storytelling. It started at Cambridge, where I did these rough “psychological” maps of London in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, continued during my senior project, and it got started again when I read a book called Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. In Maps, Peter Turchi, (who edited a book with Charles Baxter and teaches fiction at Warren Wilson College), writes about fiction using the metaphor of making maps. The sociology article containing the above graphic can be found here, and a collection of crazy network maps, here.