08 May 2019


Lucian K. Truscott has a terrific column in Salon magazine this week about GPS supplanting physical map-reading skills, and the possible negative consequences should satellite electronics go dark, specifically the issues in a combat environment.


I've always loved atlases, and learning the secrets of the gazeteer was life-changing. I had, later, an excellent National Geographic atlas that didn't use grid coordinates at all, but latitude and longitude - which is actually much more sensible - and it was terrain-based, showing geographical features instead of political boundaries. (Lucian talks about terrain-reading, too, and how shooting azimuths is an inefficient way of navigating your way out of the woods.)

Not that I don't surf Google Earth regularly, whether it's the back streets of Tbilisi or my childhood neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., and I love the kinetic thrill of it, but I still turn to two-dimensional maps on paper, views of subway systems, urban landscapes, desert hardpan, rumpled uplands. I like the big scale of the Michelins, for cityscapes, and the ONC/JNC, for wider terrain. This second a carry-over from the military, the Operational Navigational Chart scaled at 1:1,000,000, and the Jet Navigational Chart at 1:2,000,000, marked with radar overlaps and aviation hazards. Invaluable.

It's my settled habit to have a map pinned to the wall, or leaning on an easel, for whatever specific geography I'm writing about. I had the Euro Berlin opened up, some three feet square, 1:25,000, for Black Traffic, the Khyber Pass and environs for The Bone Harvest. Right now, for Absolute Zero, it's El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, and that stretch of southern Chihuahuan desert I've chosen to call The Dooms, a borderland that's entirely invention.

There's the old rule that you can break the rules if you know what they are. It's true of grammar, it's true of narrative conventions, it's true of dialogue, it's true of landscape. You just need to know it well enough. You want to inhabit it, you want it lived in, you want it familiar.

A map is only an approximation of the terrain, but it lays out physical relationships, distance and elevation, good roads and bad, watercourses and obstacles, the path of least resistance. The feel of the country, the smell of juniper and pinon, the heat, the texture, that's up to you. I find the map comforting, is what I think I mean. It's not the level of detail, it's the context. It's a perspective. I look at the map, I can walk the perimeter. It's not the place itself, it's a metaphor of place. A map is our point of departure.

I don't think it's any accident that when Robert Louis Stevenson started Treasure Island, the first thing he did was draw a map of the island itself, and his hand-drawn map is at the very front of the book.


  1. I'm with ya on this, David. I'm very fond of maps too. I think I miss the Thomas Guides the most. Back in the day you couldn't get around the vast sprawl of LA without one. Now, useless.

  2. I like to use maps when I'm writing some things, too, David. Especially if they're set in the past. But even in the present to see the relationships of various areas which can have an effect on plot and characters.

  3. I've always loved looking at maps. How easily you could get from place to place. All the towns and cities that I'd never been to and sounded so interesting. I once lived someplace I really didn't like, and I used to look at a map regularly, studying at all the roads leading out of that city, all the ways I could escape, go somewhere better. It gave me comfort.

  4. I love maps. I have a box of maps that I've collected from everywhere we travel. I also have old and new atlases. For me, it's still one of the best ways for virtual travel.

  5. I was a map librarian for several years. As interesting as they were I was just as fascinated by the people who adored them.

    Ken Jennings, who won Jeopardy a record number of times, wrote a book called Maphead, about people who (like him) are obsessed with maps. It's great. There is a chapter, for instance, on people who draw fantasy maps, for fun, or for book illustrations. (One illustrator explains he has to start with something organic, like a puddle or a stain, for the basic shape, or the result won't be believable.)

    In a chapter about GPS Jennings writes about a couple of tourists in Italy who wanted to visit the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri. They wound up in a town in the mountains of the mainland, at the Blue Grotto Restaurant. Jennings argued that if they had used a paper map they would have ventually noticed they were heading away from the sea. But I don't know...

  6. David, when I flew with the Guard helicopter pilots, they taught me how to navigate using aerial maps where not all the landmarks on the ground are on the map, however by using bends in a road or bends in a river or a high line running across the prairie, you could adjust your course to stay on route. With the switch from Hueys to Black Hawks (which are pretty much flown by GPS and autopilot), the Black Hawk pilots won't be accustomed to navigating if the satellites go down.

  7. One of my favorite mystery writers, Lindsey Davis, often includes maps of ancient Rome in her novels as well as, God love her, a cast of characters right up front so I can keep track. If publishers don't allow authors to include maps in their books, then authors can make them available on-line.

    I may use GPS but I still like to have a huge map in hand. I used to have a canvas kit with Michelin maps of France. Damn, I miss that.

    As a kid, I liked orienteering and loved tramping through woods and forests, never particularly worried about losing my way because (a) I was just a stupid kid, (b) I had a passion for antique compasses and sextants, telescopes and globes, (c) I knew about sun positioning (and included an example of finding one's direction from a wristwatch in Swamped), (d) people left to their own instincts tend to circle, and (e) I was just a stupid kid oblivious that mistakes could happen, but what the hell. It was fun.

    I'm looking at the next level. We've recently learned so much about planets and moons in our solar system, amateur globe makers are starting to craft gloves of our moon, Pluto, Mars, and counterintuitively because of the lack of visibly fixed surface features, Jupiter. How cool is that?!

  8. Very good points, nice references. Replacing map reading skills with a GPS is suicidal. Ask anyone who has been in an Uber at Lyft car that has taken them off course--if you know the neighborhood or route, you become the human GPS, which can be extremely frustrating. I'm with you.


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