Start with the Map: David Mitchell on Imaginary Cartography | The New Yorker
The book that first set me on my way was “Watership Down,” by Richard Adams. I was nine years old when I read it. Basking in its afterglow, I plotted an epic novel about a small group of fugitive otters—one of whom was clairvoyant—who get driven from their home by the ravages of building work, and swim up the River Severn to its source, in Wales, where they establish an egalitarian community called Ottertopia.
As any child author can testify, you can’t begin until you’ve got the map right. So I traced the course of the River Severn from my dad’s road atlas onto Sellotaped-together sheets of A4. Along the looping river, I drew woods, hills, and marshes in the style of the maps in “The Lord of the Rings”: blobs with sticks for trees, bumps for hills, and tufts for marshes. What about toponyms, though? Should I use existing human names, or make up Otterese words for places like Worcester or Upton-upon-Severn? Would otters have words for motorways or factories or bridges? Why would they? Why wouldn’t they? Never mind, I’ll sort that out later. I spent hours on that map, plotting the otters’ progress with a dotted red line and enjoying how nonchalant I’d be at school the day after my unprecedented Booker Prize victory. I’m sure I managed at least half a page of the novel before I got distracted.