When my wife and I bought our house she made fun of me for spending more time looking at the survey map of the property than I did at the closets or lighting fixtures. I refused to close until I’d tromped the whole perimeter, hunting out the massive cherry tree and the stand of spruce that marked the important boundaries. Of course, I missed the fact that the washer and dryer were about to shit the bed, that one of the windows didn’t, you know, close, but I know just where to find that steel pipe hidden in the stand of moose maple.

I’ve written before about the role of maps in the generation of fantasy worlds, and I want to return to the subject of maps here on a smaller scale. Nearly every epic novel has that massive map right inside the front cover: continents and duchies, blighted deserts and major rivers, mountain ranges and disputed deltas. Those maps serve an important function, but I think we writers of fantasy sometimes forget that maps can play other roles as well, specifically when it comes to the fantasy battle.

Take a look at the following maps from the American Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Antietam:

Gettysburg Map

Antietam Map

Both were crucial conflicts and, just as importantly for our purposes here, both were complex. Gettysburg lasted three days. Anyone who’s visited the Gettysburg site knows that it takes just about that long to explore the whole battlefield, to try to understand what took place and when and how, to crouch down on Cemetery Hill, to follow the agonizingly long course of Pickett’s Charge (in which one of every two Confederate soldiers died), to walk through the “Valley of Death.” It’s not just my curiosity about maps and geography at work here, it’s a fascination with the human condition, the acts of heroism and cowardice, brilliance and stupidity, that played out on both sides. Those human stories are at the heart of the Battle of Gettysburg and the crucial thing is this: we wouldn’t be able to fully understand them without the map.

Even the most lucid writer narrating for the most attentive reader would run into problems. Describe the terrain first, then people it with troops? Consider the battle from an eagle’s-eye view, or get down in the lines and give a confusing, but more psychologically immediate account from a soldier’s perspective? Take a synchronic approach, running through all the events of, say, 3:00 PM on July 2, or follow one unit through the course of a full day and then rewind to pick up a different storyline?

A battle map doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does give the writer more freedom. A glance at a small-scale battle map gives the reader a better understanding of the terrain and deployment of troops than several pages of tedious description. The writer can then focus on the inner lives of those involved, the instances of heroism and cowardice, of tactical brilliance and strategic blunder, without worrying that the reader might not understand that this hill is a little further to the north than that hill, that the river curves below the stretch of rapids and not above.

Of course, most fantasy battles are not this complex. Even major battles (Helm’s Deep, some of the big fights in the Codex Alera series) tend to be pretty straightforward: guard this castle, attack that hill. There’s nothing wrong with straightforward fights, but any writer (and reader) with even a marginal curiosity regarding military history will sometimes hanker for something a little more involved. In these cases, a battle map (or two! Or three!) prefacing the chapter could play a crucial role. It’s worth noting that Joe Abercrombie’s novel The Heroes revolves around a single three-day battle – and it has a small-scale map of just this sort.

On the other hand, my wife never looks at the maps. “I don’t read for the cartography,” she says. “Atlases are for maps; novels are for stories.” I’m curious whether others feel this way, or if, like me, most readers would prefer more maps than we’re usually given.