How to write a fantasy story: it all starts with a map

Published on: 18 July 2023

Clarity Jones and the Magical Detective Agency author Chris Smith shares his starting point for writing fantasy fiction.

Chris Smith and the cover of Clarity Jones and the Magical Detective AgencyChris Smith and the cover of Clarity Jones and the Magical Detective Agency

Middle Earth, Earthsea, and the Hundred Acre Wood...

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by books with a map at the front. I still have my very battered old copy of Winnie the Pooh and it falls neatly open on the map of the Hundred Acre Wood at the start – a line in red crayon leads between Owl’s house and Eeyore’s Gloomy Place where I apparently began to trace out my own story among the trees. Later, it was the maps of Middle Earth and Earthsea that I pored over. And so, when I started thinking about writing a fantasy book of my own, it was obvious to me where I should start.

I was on holiday when I first started mapping out Parallelia for the story that would become Frankie Best Hates Quests. I sat happily in the sunshine with a set of coloured pencils and a compass and plotted out the five-pointed star that offers this strange land its magical protection. But when I came to plan a city somewhere to the south-east that would form the setting for my next story, I was less detail-focused. Thick splodges of blue paint on a large sheet of paper became the winding River Rill and the oxbow lake that forms a castle moat. Looking at the wide bend in the river, it seemed obvious to me what the earliest settlers would have called the place where they came to trade. And so Meandermart began to take shape, and later the people who live there, including Clarity Jones and her Magical Detective Agency.

When I take creative writing workshops in schools I always encourage the students to start with a map before they begin a story.

It’s a great way of unlocking the imagination, especially for those who tend to clam up at the idea of creative writing. At the start of the session, I usually ask, ‘who thinks they could write a story right now?’ and a few hands go up. Then together we draw a squiggly circle on a flipchart. A few blue waves around the sides and suddenly it’s an island. What shall we put on the island? Mountains? A castle? A river or a forest? And at that point something magical always happens. One child will pipe up with a suggestion of their own: a lake of hot chocolate, perhaps. A giant chair. A singing tree. And there’s a shifting in the room as a couple of hundred brains realise the same thing. You can have anything you like on your map. And when, later on, I stand in front of the completed map and ask, ‘now who thinks they could write a story?’ it’s always a thrill to see a forest of hands shoot into the air.

Chris Smith's map of Meandermart

Chris Smith's map of Meandermart

Building worlds for fantastical creatures

Once the map is drawn, the world is beginning to take shape inside my head. Of course, there’s a lot more to add. The creatures who live in the forest, for starters – always one of my favourite parts. Meandermart is populated by gnangers, for instance – small dragon-like creatures who eat all the rubbish at night, thereby doing away with the need for dustbins. And along with the monsters and animals you need the folk traditions of the people who live there; each midwinter Meandermartins commiserate the season on Moaningtide – a chance to spend a whole day complaining about the cold. But these things don’t start to pop into my head until they have a map to live in. 

It’s always good to leave something in reserve as well. How boring would it be if our heroes visited every single part of the map? For both Frankie Best and Clarity Jones there are many places we see at the start of the book which don’t actually feature in either story. Frankie never makes it to the shining seaside haven of Splendidness (accent on the middle syllable) and Clarity Jones does not travel to the Flyger Mountains to see for herself the beautiful striped flying cats that dwell there. Not yet, at least. Because that’s the wonderful thing about a map, isn’t it? There’s always just one more place that you might go and visit. One more story still to tell.

Clarity Jones and her Magical Detective Agency by Chris Smith, illustrated by Kenneth Anderson, is out now.

Become a BookTrust Friend today

Give the gift of reading from just £3 a month

Open the magical world of books to children

Donate now