I am writing a fictional historical novel. The setting is in another part of the world, nearly 100 years ago. I would wish to make the novel understandable to my fellow Westerner.

Understanding geography is the CRUX of this fictional novel.

What is the best way to include some maps at the end of the book so it:

  • gives readers a reference?
  • keeps readers engaged?
  • helps readers relate to the characters, who after all are also human?
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    I would suggest that you include in in the front and back of the book, the front cover has the landmarks of all the world as the reader should be aware of at the start of the story, while the back should contain all the landmarks that were revealed over the course of the story... if you sequel this, take part I back map and make it part II's front map. This keeps from revealing spoilery locations prior to the read.
    – hszmv
    Commented Mar 5, 2020 at 14:30
  • 2
    @Alexander not necessarily. A (genuine historical) map showing Napoleon's route to Moscow and back does not necessarily tell us if he took Moscow and returned victorious, or if he returned beaten with just a few percent of his original army. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 0:05
  • 2
    Also, the map could (and should) contain hundreds of details not necessarily related to the story, or related very superficially. Sufficient number of red herrings very efficiently neutralizes all spoilers.
    – SF.
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 13:27
  • 2
    Personally, I like the artistry and creativity of the maps I've seen in novels, rather than their relevance to the story. To me, it's a 2nd cover-art work, rather than blank pages that need to be skipped. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 20:47
  • 2
    I once read a book that I wished had an accompanying map, and didn't discover it had one until I had finished it, because it was at the end rather than the beginning. (It was probably an e-book; I suspect it's easier to "accidentally" discover an end map in a paper book.)
    – chepner
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 2:03

8 Answers 8


Maps are useful supplemental material for a novel, but can prove awkward if a novel becomes overly reliant on them for clarity.

While it is now less of an issue than it has been in the past decades, it is still worth keeping the potential limitations in mind while writing.

Graphics are, and effectively always will be, a slightly less flexible medium general medium to work in. This may impact the long term presentation options for your novel if their inclusion becomes critical to the clear understanding of your story.

  • While printing and display options are generally far better and clearer than they have been in the past, inclusions of a reliable and readable map can generate headaches due to medium limitations.

Also keep in mind that different readers may have varying understandings when it comes to overall geometric topics. Working with and understanding maps is just second nature to some of us, and ideas such as "West", "North", and general map reading can be entirely opaque and utterly useless to others.

Maps can simply be hard to keep track of and a reader's ability to actively memorize a map will vary. A novel written in a manner that assumes accurate and reliable knowledge of the maps in question can easily prove frustrating for a segment of potential readers when it forces them to keep flipping back to check the map.

Beyond that there are also accessibility considerations involved - Maps are difficult to accurately translate for vision impairment, and this problem becomes worse as the map complexity grows. Heavy reliance on maps will also negatively impact a novel's adaptation into an Audio Book.

[Tempting a driver to go dig out a map to keep following along is kind of a 'less than ideal' issue...]

As such it seems sensible to aim to write the novel itself such that is readily stands on its own without supporting maps or graphics. The more a piece of work relies on elements such as visual arts, the more we restrict ourselves in how it may be presented.

In short, maps are excellent additions to a novel, but are less than ideal if strictly relied upon for clear and obvious understanding.

  • Write as if you expect the maps to be missing, but aim to publish as if their inclusion isn't an issue.
  • Great idea. The map is simple, but I will re-write to include relative direction of places.
    – Marium
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 23:59
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    At least having (or sketching) a map while writing will hopefully reduce the number of times locations jump around, necessitating handwaving travel at the speed of plot and frequent cataclysmic upheavels and rearragnements. Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 18:20
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    If someone reads a book in one go, having descriptions of locations in the text will be less distracting than requiring that the reader examine a map. If, however, someone sets down a book for awhile and wishes to resume reading, or otherwise forgets part of the geography, a map may help refresh the reader's memory. On a related note, a glossary or index can sometimes serve a similar purpose if a work coins new words or phrases.
    – supercat
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 17:54

I can't remember which book series it was but it included a map at the start of the book of the entire continent where the story took place and at the start of each chapter another map that was zoomed in to province/state the chapter was taking place in. And at the end the same map again but this time with a dotted line showing the characters journey.

Personally i think this is a beautiful way of showing the journey but it will require a lot of effort on your part making those maps.

  • 2
    Any chance you're thinking of the Belgariad? It has several maps as you describe, though I don't recall the journey map...
    – user170231
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 15:12
  • Maps are clunky, and if I see them in a book, back it goes on the shelf in the bookshop or library. Double for weird fonts, extra double for place names in cod-Gaelic or sprinkled with apostrophes. Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 23:51
  • 1
    I also prefer my maps at the front of the book, and at the header of a chapter, but it does not need to take much space. Half a page would do for most maps.
    – Willeke
    Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 17:42

[Added May 20, 2020. I just noticed that the question was about a real word situation about a century ago. People do know more about the geography of the real world than they know about the geography of totally fictional imaginary places. However, I for one know a lot more about geography than most people do, and I know enough to know that I am quite ignorant of many details of the geography of many places. There are many places in the world where I would have no idea which was the logical direction for characters to travel in a specific situation. I could certainly use a good map to help me understand course of events in many historical situations.

You may have heard of the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, for example. One of the reasons for the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry was that most of the fighting was not in the flat lands southwest of the Little Bighorn but in the hills northeast of the Little Bighorn in terrain that was not so suited for cavalry. It also happened that Custer was unable to reach a ford to cross the Little Bighorn to assist Reno before Reno retreated.

About three years later, the Battle of Isandhlwana on January 22, 1879 during the Anglo-Zulu is often compared to the Little Bighorn. The first British victory in the war was on 29 March 1879 when the main Zulu force attacked the heavily entrenched camp of Colonel Wood's column at Kambula and were repulsed with heavy casualties, greatly depressing their morale.

About a day's ride from Kambula was a Zulu stronghold at Hlolbane. While expecting the Zulu army to attack Kambula, Colonel Wood decided to send a force to attack Hlobane on March 28.

If I was writing a fictional story about this, I would have mounted volunteers discussing when they would be ordered to attack Hlobane. And I would have the youngest officer in Weatherley's Horse, Sublieutenant Rupert Weatherley, aged 14, express the opinion that Wood would not be stupid enough to send them to raid Hlobane until after the main Zulu army attacked Kambula and was defeated.

When asked why, Rupert would say that the terrain at the Little Bighorn was unsuitable for cavalry operations, and is considered was a major factor in the defeat of the 7th cavalry. And a cavalry attack of Hlobane would face worse odds since there were thousand of warriors in that area, outnumbering the mounted force as badly as the 7th Cavalry was outnumbered by Sioux, and the terrain at Hlobane would be much worse, and more favorable to the Zulu infantry, than the terrain at the Little Big Horn. Rupert might draw a diagram in the dirt to illustrate his point.

Hlobane was about twice as large as the battle area at the Little Bighorn, consisting of two plateaus surrounded by steep slopes which it would be hard to get horses up or down, and separated by another steep slope difficult for horses, and with much rugged terrain favorable for infantry at the top. Thus it would be even harder for cavalry detachments to support each than it was for Custer and Reno to do so at the Little Bighorn.

So Rupert claims that a significant force of infantry would be needed to support the cavalry in any attack on Hlobane. But if an infantry force was marching to or from Holbane and was caught in the open by the main Zulu force, they would be slaughtered as at Isandhlwana, though the cavalry would be able to retreat to the fortified position at Kambula. So Wood would not dare to send infantry to Hlobane until the main Zulu army attacked Kambula and was defeated, and would not send the cavalry to attack Hlobane without infantry because that would be too similar to the situation at the Little Bighorn and be risking a similar defeat.

And if I was writing the story, Rupert would say that on March 26, right before orders are announced for the cavalry to ride toward Hlobane on March 27, and attack it from two directions on March 28. And Rupert would apologize for his opinion, since obviously Wood knew a lot more than Rupert and Wood obviously didn't consider the risk of repeating the Little Bighorn to be very large.

And in real history Wood did attack at Hlobane on March 28 in terrain that was much worse than at the Little Bighorn, with a divided force as at the Little Bighorn, and with the numbers about the same as at the Little Bighorn, and an additional factor which didn't happen at the Little bighorn, the main Zulu army was seen approaching, something Wood must have known could have happened, and the local Zulus were greatly encouraged by that, and the results were rather similar to the Little Bighorn.

Anyway, local geography matters a lot in war, travel, trade, natural disasters, and other events which can be interesting subjects for historical novels. If thinks maps can help explain why the geography dictates the course of events, you should use maps.]

While reading the question I had the idea that perhaps a novel could show a series of maps showing the characters's growing knowledge of the world. At the beginning they might have good knowledge of everyplace within a couple of days walk, within 20 or 30 miles.

And they might imagine that every other place in the would is within about another 20 or 30 miles from their home. So they might have heard that the evil realm of Darklordia is to the north and so picture it as being between 20 and 30 miles thick and beginning just 20 or 30 miles north of their home village. if they heard that the Empire of Goodlandia is to the south they might picture it as being and beginning about 20 or 30 miles south of home. And they might imagine the whole world is a disc about 40 to 60 miles in radius centered on their home.

And as they travel for days and days and days without reaching places which they thought were just beyond the limits of their knowledge, they ideas about how large the world is will get bigger and bigger. So every now and then you might include a map showing how far they are traveled and thus how might larger their mental map of the world has become.

{Added 05-20-2020. And if the story is set in a giant archipelago of islands like Indonesia or Ursula K. Le Guins's Earthsea instead of on a continent, the characters can have boats but never have traveled farther than the next island in any direction. So the maps could show the new islands they learn about as they travel farther and farther from home.

J.R.R. Tolkien made a map of the northwestern corner of Middle-earth while writing The Lord of the Rings. So the travels the characters take make a lot of sense with times, distances, and directions adding up very well. Except that it has been pointed that there is an inconsistency between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings about the terrain around where the trolls are encountered on the way to Rivendell. I have suggested that an earthquake changed the course of a river and a road was rerouted to follow the new course of the river between the two stories.

I have also noted that description in the story of the travels between Moria and Lorien to the banks of the river Anduin does not agree with the map as well as it usually does, so I am not sure whether to think that the map is a little inaccurate compared to the map, or the story is a little inaccurate compared to the map.

Tolkien was also very careful with time. For example, he used an almanac of the phases of the Moon in the year 1941 to model the phases of the moon in the fictional years 3018 and 3019 of the Third Age. And so the number of days in the story between when the Moon is described with the same phase, such as full, adds up to the proper number of days, except that there are one or two descriptions of the lunar phases which are not at the proper dates.

One of the appendixes to The Return of the King, The Tale of the Years, gives specific dates for everything that happens in The Lord of the Rings during Third Age 3018 and 3019. And I happened to notice there is a chronological difference between the story and the Tale of the Years at one point, when the Tale of the Years spreads out some events over at least one or two more days than the account in the story itself suggests. And if someone had pointed that out to Tolkien he would have wanted to rewrite the story and/or The Tale of the Years to make them agree with each other better.

So in my opinion, writers of fantasy should create maps of their imaginary settings while writing their stories and should compare the maps and the stories frequently and adjust one or the other whenever they find a discrepancy.]

  • 1
    Don't forget the mandatory warning: Here be dragons. Or whatever kind of monster tickles your fancy. Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 18:23
  • Just wanted to comment to say that Rupert Weatherley was a distant cousin. Found this post in a google search for Weatherley's Horse. :). If you do write that book, I'd read it. Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 7:28

Mary Stewart's Arthurian legend quintet would be decidedly less engaging without its maps on the inside front and back covers.

It shows Hadrian's Wall, which Merlin eventually rebuilds. The Salisbury Plain, containing Stonehenge, which he also rebuilds, and shows its proximity to everything else in the story; the dead end that a trip to Cornwall would be; where the Isle of Man is; the titular Crystal Cave in the middle of nowhere lending itself to the life of a hermit; etc.

The map is not fictional, but it brings to life a story of fantasy, and whether it had ever existed or not, it does now in my mind. I read these books thirty years ago but I can still point to this map and tell you where everything happened. Without it, they'd just be names of places and this westerner wouldn't understand why I can't visit all of them in two days on the (not so tiny) island of Great Britain.

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  • 2
    And notice how simple this is. Just one map. Not much detail. No battle sites or routes. Commented Mar 8, 2020 at 17:39

I'd ask around about how many people study maps in fiction books. I'd guess not so many. "The Dragon Waiting", an award-winning alt-history fiction, has no maps. Generally the writing tells you all you need to know. The maps are extra, and shouldn't be required to understand the story. For real-world historical fiction it might be fun to copy non-fiction and put the maps in the middle.

I recently read a non-fiction book about a WWII lend-lease convoy (PQ17). All I needed to know was explained in the text: a multi-week route with little room to maneuver, needed to assemble in a desolate part of Iceland, entire route within easy range of Axis air force and navy but last half out of range of Ally support, it was possible to get a little further away from Axis patrols by traveling through a deadly stretch of sea. That was plenty.

The map in the middle was hard to read. I didn't know which countries were Nazi-occupied and had air bases, don't know how currents work, the ice floes weren't marked well since they slowly get thicker, I had no sense of what a week's travel was. When I figured it out, all it did was confirm everything in the text. Flipping to it to check every event wouldn't have made the book any better. And this was a non-fiction book, with a map of the real Barents Sea. I doubt I would have even bothered for a made-up map.

  • 3
    Personally, I love maps in fiction where the geography is complex or crucial, and I will reference the maps as I read. I can't imagine reading Tolkien or George R. R. Martin novels without maps.
    – Mohair
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 16:37

You may be interested in how the maps are presented in the books Watership Down and The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams - both stories include multiple maps of the journeys undertaken by the characters. The stories are set in the south of England and include maps in the front, back, and some interleaved throughout.


If it is a really complicated book with loads of places in it, what I would suggest is put a map at the start. What I did in my book, is put a small map with the library, friends houses etc. Then I put a bigger map in with the village, stream, ocean, and forest. I find the maps just make it easier to read, and I refer back to the maps often.


Maps are common enough in books that no one will find it abnormal or something like that. In fact, I would put the map there if I were you. It will keep the reader engaged, as they will be able to tell where things are, making them not only follow the story easier, but also feel more like they're in the story.

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