How Do You Map an Imaginary Country?

enhanced-buzz-wide-30779-1361483121-2Read a fascinating article today by journalist Colin Woodard, who argues in his new book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, that America is actually composed of eleven different “nations” with vastly differing cultures.



upinarms-map          For example, the northern half of what we call Texas is actually part of Greater Appalachia, which includes most of Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. “Founded in the early eighteenth century by wave upon wave of settlers from the war-ravaged borderlands of Northern Ireland, northern England, and the Scottish lowlands, Appalachia . . . transplanted a culture formed in a state of near constant danger and upheaval, characterized by a warrior ethic and a commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty.”


Throughout its history Appalachia has formed a tacit alliance with the region known as the Deep South. The two main poles of tension in America for the last 200 years have been the Deep South and Yankeeland. Founded by Puritans, Yankeeland is communal, peaceful, well-educated, democratic, and deeply suspicious of tyrants and utopians. The Deep South is aristocratic and violent, favoring deregulation, lower taxes, capital punishment, and limited restrictions on guns.


But it was the map that really fascinated me.


Generally speaking, there are two ways to write a contemporary fantasy novel. The first way is to create your own world with its own lands, peoples, languages, customs, and (depending on how detailed you want to be), animals, architecture, flora and fauna, etc. This is the approach favored by J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, among others.


The second approach is to retain the contours of this world, while perhaps transforming it in subtle ways. Perhaps the most interesting modern example of this approach is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Lyra Silvertongue’s heroic odyssey is set in a world that is still recognizably our own, albeit one in which John Calvin was able to become pope and the country of Texas was settled by zeppelin-flying immigrants from Denmark.


Writing a story set in this universe can seem easier, but in fact it requires a comparable level of planning and logistics. For example, what kind of technology powers the lamps that your characters read by? In what do they travel? How is history the same as it is in the real world, and how might it be different? Is there, or has there ever been, magic? What do people fight over? Who or what do they worship? Do we have all the same trees, or entirely different ones, or a mixture of both?


These are the kinds of things I obsess over. Sometimes it’s nice to relax and just enjoy someone else’s interpretation, for example, of what America might look like if the fifty states were evenly divided according to population. Check out this map:




And this one, which is probably my favorite of the bunch:




I love all the weird names: Chinati, Shiprock, Muskogee, Cumberland, Bitteroot, Allegheny, Coronado, Tidewater (and I love that Missouri is basically the same). It makes me think of how weird some of the actual names for our states are: Montana, Arkansas, New York, Texas…


Anyway, if you like these, you should check out Buzzfeed’s list of 38 maps you never knew you needed. If you’ve ever wanted to see what the world would look like if water and land masses were inverted, now is your chance.


3 thoughts on “How Do You Map an Imaginary Country?

  1. Pingback: Archives | thetalkingllama

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