Day 22 – Mapping Your Story Setting


We use maps in our research all the time to find ancestral hometowns. We also use maps to outline a story. But maps are also very beneficial in building the setting of your story. They can serve as an excellent visual tool.

In writing our family history stories, you most likely you will be placing your ancestors in small villages, on a farm, within a house, or even on a journey. In each of these instances, consider drawing a map, seeking out history to help you build that plan. For example, I’m drawing a map of my ancestor’s hometown. I’m mapping out his last day of life as he walked from home to a saloon, to several stores and then home again. It will help me to create a visual so that it will be easier to describe in my story for the reader.

Think about where do they spend their days?

How do they move from place to place?

Where is it logical for them to be and go?

Perhaps your characters are traveling, and are taking a long journey in a wagon train from east to west, you want a clear vision of the map, their stops, what would they have seen at each of these stops.

Other story settings may be more mundane. Perhaps you are setting your story in a small town. Consider where do the neighbours live, how far are they from church, the local store?  Do they live in a tenement where life is very close?

Whatever your possible settings, I suggest that you make a list of settings in your story. Most readers expect to visit more than one place in a story, and you should be prepared to know where the setting is in relation to each other and how your ancestor will move from one setting to the next.

Research Locations

After you have come up with your list of possible settings for the scenes of your story, you may need to engage in research to get them right. Remember the devil is in the details. The more you know about these locations, the better chance you have at bringing them to life on the page. The best thing you can do is to visit your settings or reasonable proxies for them personally. Consult your local museums and historical societies to get as much information as you can to create the setting of your ancestor’s place and time.

By visiting these places — even if you will not be using the exact places that you visit — you can learn a lot about details and the atmosphere.

Some areas are difficult to visit, tomorrow, we will look at some unique ways that perhaps you haven’t thought of to help you get up close to your ancestor’s world.

Whatever your possible settings, when you do your visits or your research, look around you — in all six directions. Left, right, front, back, up and down. (Most of us forget “up” and “down.”)

  • What do you see; what do you notice?
  • What would your characters see?
  • Where does the light come from?
  •  Is it warm or cold? Dry or moist?
  • How does it smell?
  • Do you hear anything?
  •  How does it feel to walk on the floor?
  • What is your emotional reaction? Are you in awe or uncomfortable?

Don’t feel it necessary to duplicate the details exactly or all of them. Like we said in yesterday’s post. Pay attention to what stands out. You may be surprised by what bits and pieces will prove useful as you start to write.


Make a Map

Once you gathered your information, make a map. You may find it useful to make rough sketches or even detailed maps. Sketches and maps can help orient you as you write your story and plan the action. It can also help you keep from contradicting yourself.

If you’re recreating a world with a lot of details and information, maps and illustrations can save you a lot of grief. You never know, your map might become a nice addition to your story, it may help the reader as well.

You may not be mapping a city or the route of a journey. Perhaps you are sketching the floor plan of a house so that you remember where the front door is, whose bedroom is on which floor, and how many bathrooms the house has or where the outhouse is.  Perhaps you are just drawing the furniture in a room so that you know where your grandmother’s favourite chair was in the room or the kitchen table in relation to the pot belly stove.


Maps and sketches can help you keep your story setting straight. You won’t need them for all your locations, but in some instances, they can be invaluable. Once you know your way around your story’s settings, you can move your ancestors through them with confidence — and guide your readers through your ancestor’s world.