I've been having a bit of trouble finding my way around lately.
My sense of direction is pretty rubbish at the best of times, but nothing brings out my navigational doofus tendencies like trying to get to various places in a building I've never actually, physically been inside. Partly because said building is located three thousand miles away, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. And partly because it only exists in my head.
You guessed it - I'm talking about a location in my Renegades novel. A large underground base hidden in the side of a quarry, to be precise.
In its real-life geographical location in New York state where the novel is set it doesn't actually exist, but some specific infrastructure is really there so that, at some point in the future, it plausibly could. (Yep, I did the research for it - God bless the internet!) So even though I've placed it in a real-world environment, the base itself is pure fantasy - mine to carve out of that hillside however I like.
So if it's just a pretend place, I don't need to know exactly where everything in it is in relation to everything else, do I? I mean, it's my secret base; I invented it, so I can tell the readers whatever I want about it, right?
Well... it turns out that no, I can't. Or, to put it more accurately, I can't tell them whatever I want about it whenever it suits me. If I say there's a gymnasium just down from the dining area in Chapter One, then that's where it always has to be - forever, for the entire life of the story. And I can't just blithely assume that, should I make a geographical slip-up at some point, 'no-one will notice a little detail like that.' Because that's like assuming everyone else possesses navigational skills as dire as mine (and that's a hell of a lot of people I'd be insulting.)
To put it bluntly, fans of science fiction novels are smart cookies who aren't easy to fool; some of these people have actually taught themselves to speak Klingon, for crying out loud. They're gonna pick up on every little detail - even those that seem trivial and insignificant to those of us with smaller brain capacity - and if it's wrong, it will jerk them out of the story and that's a bad thing.
I have a fairly flexible imagination, which enables me to create these places in the first place; unfortunately flexible imaginations tend to come with an equally flexible memory. This results in a brain that enjoys creating things on the fly so much, it rarely mentally files anything away so that it'll be the same every time. But, for the purpose of building a believable story, my world has to be the same every time; it can't change from scene to scene. The only way to ensure constancy then is to set it in stone from the start; design and plan it, the same way an architect designs and plans a real-life building.
So, after several hours of: searching through the text of the entire novel for all mentions of the various rooms in my base, cutting out, fiddling with and glueing bits of squared paper, and then faffing about trying to make Microsoft Excel work like a floor-plan-drawing tool (I'm pleased to report that it can, and the results look surprisingly good) I have now made myself a thoroughly detailed map of my fantasy underground location. I could even tell you where the toilets are - if you really wanted to know.
Boring? Yeah, sometimes. Headache-inducing? Oh, heck yeah! But unnecessarily nit-picky? Not on your life. Because now, not only will the map ensure my characters will always be able to take the right route to reach the places they want to get to - but I can make my descriptions of them more interesting. More real, because now I'm properly 'with' them, following them around like a little spy. I'll know, for example, that they can smell disinfectant as they're walking down a particular corridor, because my map tells me they're passing the medical room. And when you're mentally walking through the same environment as your characters, it makes it so much easier to get inside their heads and know what they're feeling and thinking.
Tolkien famously drew detailed maps of Middle-Earth and wrote vast, sprawling back-histories for all the races inhabiting his mythical lands. J.K Rowling did a lot of the same for her Harry Potter series. I can see now that their reasons for doing so went much deeper than mere nerdish pleasure in creating little extra nuggets of trivia for their fantasy worlds. I guess if I'm going to learn a valuable lesson from anyone, it might as well be from two of the greatest storytellers of them all.
Happy New Year, everybody! Let's make this the year that we Get Stuff Done!