Season 2 Episode 7: Mapping out the City of Bones

In this episode I tell how I was taught to navigate the City of Bones by using landmarks to build a mental map in my head. I explore how to understand a city better by creating a mental map. And the Strange but True tells about a mysterious and ancient city map that inspired the construction of a replica city.

Key Takeaways:

How to think about using city landmarks to map out your city.

How to create unique landmarks for your city.

There is a growing list of potential show sponsors. The sponsors I’ve chosen this week fit well with the show theme, and gives me the opportunity for revenge.

Here goes.

This episode is sponsored by The ShroudGuides. ShroudGuides offer the most discreet and professional guides in the City of Bones. No part of the city is unknown to them, they claim.

What a load of crap! I hired these people once. Their ‘rip off guide’ led me to the wrong part of town, claimed I’d given him the wrong address, and said he’d leave me there if I didn’t pay him extra.

If you ever find yourself in the City of Bones, never, ever hire these people.

And if I ever meet that guide again, well . . .

I won’t dwell on my personal grudges. On with the show.

In episode seven of season 1, I was introduced to the concept of mapmaking in Dunari. This involved me mapping out Ganhook’s compound by using elements of the compound as visual reference points.

My mapmaking education continued when we began taking morning walks around the neighbourhood. Not only was I supposed to get my head around everything, I was supposed to take mental notes on how to navigate the city.

Like I said before, for security purposes, full maps of the city are illegal.

I wasn’t allowed to take any pencil and paper with me.

Not that I complained. I was only too happy to get out and about. Even better, Stein Cat said she was too busy to show me around, so she assigned a ghost cat called Number Twenty to be my supplementary guide along with Shinytop.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Stein Cat. She just talks too much, mostly about herself. The few times I’d been out with her, I’d learned more about her problems that I had about the city.

Although Number Twenty’s head was as misshapen as a rotten orange, there was a good reason she’d be my guide. Her death hadn’t been her fault. A bull moatejaw had escaped a local market, trampled a few people, and Number Twenty had died by ‘crushed head’ stopping it.

‘You stand out as a visitor,’ Stein Cat had said, ‘This may attract thieves and the like. But she’s so ugly, she’ll scare them away.’

As the days passed I got to know some of the jewellers. The lady who had given me the bracelet was, Obia, her daughter was Bitani, and the ghost (who was Obia’s great-grandfather) was Hamnatt.

I visited them each morning. It was a great place to prepare my mind for the further weirdness in the nearby streets. Obia’s workshop became a kind of halfway house between Ganhook’s compound and the city.

The first thing I learned was that there were no street name signs. Yet, everyone knew their way about anyway.

The second thing I learned was to keep clear of the little three wheeled delivery carts that buzzed about in all sorts of chaos. Powered by some kind of battery, their drivers would run you over if you got in their way.

The third, and most important thing, I learned was that it was impossible to describe everything. Despite Shinytop’s and Number Twenty’s explanations, my mind couldn’t handle one tenth of half of it.

Of course the jewellers’ district had lots of habitations, warehouse, and other constructions, too. But I only focussed on the different exteriors (namely the odder and larger bones) that I could use as reference points to build my mental map.

While Ganhook’s compound, and some other buildings, were tall, the streets around the Seventh Relic compound rarely rose higher than four storeys. They were so narrow in places the sky was barely a blue slit above them.

Shinytop said that the city contained sixteen districts. Each district was composed of multiple localities, all of which surrounded a relic. The different localities were marked with different coloured totems. These tall bones usually sat at intersections, and each held symbols of the businesses, houses, and buildings close by.

The only direction signs in the place were animal skulls. These skulls had no connection to the city’s bones, and they’d been altered to provide directions. A half broken horn pointing down a street meant a dead end. A red stripe on the half horn meant that a pedestrian tunnel led out of the dead end.

Skulls with open mouths meant through roads. Skulls without a lower jaw meant an underground entry. Glass eyes within a skull indicated a public space, usually a water garden. Those eyes freaked me out. No matter from what angle I looked at them, they always stared back at me.

So, I learned that I went down the street along a line of silversmith premises, turned right at a giant, cracked femur, turned right again at a small skull with a broken horn with a red stripe, I’d end up in a dead end with an underground tunnel leading out of it.

‘Even the best of us get confused,’ Shinytop said. ‘Each district has different skull signs. They’ve been trying to standardise it forever.’

I didn’t worry too much about it. I had already decided I’d never find my way around. Besides, to escape back to the interdimensional gateway, I only needed one good way out of the city.

The only standardised signs in the city were the illuminous yellow footsteps painted onto the cobbles. These led to the underground storm shelters. Painted onto the road slabs, these were spaced out like someone had put paint on their feet and sprinted along.

These, Shinytop said, indicated haste.

I was grateful that most of the people looked like normal people, and the few weirdoes wandering about weren’t much weirder than what you’d see wandering around Dublin on a sunny day.

And if I was in any doubt about the similarities between the humans in the City of Bones and the crowd back home, those doubts vanished when we encountered a protesting crowd.

Along one street, we saw a building shrouded in mist. Actually, it was half a building, and judging by the speed with which the ghostly figures within the mist were hammering away at the rest of it, it would soon be a space instead of a building.

An agitated crowd of young people had gathered nearby. They were waving wooden signs and chanting some kind of gobbledegook. Occasionally, some piece of fruit flew out of the crowd and into the mist.

It looked like fun.

‘What are they protesting about?’ I asked Number Twenty. But Number Twenty just mumbled something about not hanging around.

I almost joined them. After all, I’d more to complain about than them, and pelting a few rotten apples was a good way to let off some steam. While Shinytop thought it was a good idea, Number Twenty steered me away from the protesters. She said that it would make Ganhook look bad if the City Guard grabbed me.

I spotted Bitani in the crowd. She was waving a board with a building sketched onto it. The following morning, she told me that the younger inhabitants of the district wanted newer, trendier buildings constructed instead of the same tired old designs.

Yes, I thought. I definitely had a better reason to pelt rotten apples at someone.

Once again, it was hard to focus on everything. But some standout landmarks that I started my mental map with were:

The Sweet Bridge, a bridge spanning a dry river bed. The bed was crammed with tall, wavy plants heavy with red and yellow vegetables that resembled bell peppers. Number Twenty told me that when the River Elvost dried out in summer, the locals grew vegetables on its bed. Apparently, the sediment the river carried from the Wharonen Marshes was highly nutritional, and the vegetables grew fast and big.

The Vender Skull. This enormous skull could be found one hundred and thirty paces from Ganhook’s compound. It sat alone, and was cracked in so many places it surely would have collapsed if it hadn’t been coated with a web of vines.

Grufuz Hall. This timber constructed hall is fifty metres downriver from the Sweet Bridge. During the summer it’s used as a depot for the residents who plant the river bed. The rest of the year it’s a warehouse and lodgings for the river transport people. It is one of only three timber constructed buildings in the seventh district.

I could write a book about my first few days exploring. But I never will. If I published too many details about the city, the City Guard might consider me a spay. I could end up in one of the most notable and notorious landmarks in the city.

The Undersea Prison.

And that’s one landmark I really, really don’t want to visit.


Now a bit of context on how I learned to mentally map out the City of Bones.

Creating a city map is a fantastic way to engage and exercise your imagination. You draw it out and fill it with avenues, parks, castles, and lots of other interesting things.

But how well do you actually know your city?

Imagine yourself standing in the middle of that city and someone comes up to you and asks directions to a certain place.

Could you tell them how to find that place?

While maps are great, most of us rarely carry maps around with us when we’re in our local area. We don’t need them. We already have a mental map of the place, a mental map that helps us navigate using landmarks and other places that are important to us.

So, do you know your city well enough to give directions by using landmarks instead of a map?

Whether it’s London, New York, or the Emerald City, exploring the landmarks are is the best way to understand that city.

Ancient cities had no grand maps to guide visitors about. The inhabitants walked everywhere, using landmarks as guides, and most of them never went anywhere they didn’t need to go anyway.

Because full maps of the City of Bones are illegal for security reasons, I was taught to build a mental map of the place using landmarks as reference points.

Now, you might think that a city made of bones has enough distinctive features to easily build a mental map. Not really. After a while, the bone formations looked similar, forcing me to focus on individual landmarks.

So how do you create unique landmarks for your city?

Why not being with artworks.

Unless all the artworks in the city are completed by one artist, you will have artistic competition (usually over the city’s lifespan), thus leading to an extraordinary and unique set of features throughout your city.

And how can you get inspiration to develop these features?

Take a personal guided tour of any city centre, or take a bus of the whole place. Study city tour maps. Where are the interesting sites? Are they mostly historical or cultural sites, or are there sites like parks or squares that signify unique moments in the city’s evolution?

For fun, create a guided tour to explain ‘your’ city?

For further inspiration, study city tours and tourist bureau websites of exotic, foreign cities. Or study archaeological maps of abandoned cities. Note the highlights. Ask yourself why those highlights are there, when they were created, who created them, and why.

Unless you take a specialised city tour that only deals with murder sites, or ghosts, or the homes of the rich, or such things, most city tours will give a good, general view of the city.

Nothing is random in a city. Everything, even the broken things, have meaning. As your building your city map, you’ll also get great ideas to build the city’s history, too.

Think about how different city quarters have developed due to immigration into the country, or internal migration within the country. There is not a city in the world that hasn’t been shaped by these movements of people.

Can your city’s landmarks demonstrate culture. For example, a culture of war?

Rome’s Trajan’s column is a fantastic example of this. It is a freestanding column famous for its spiral bas relief depicting the Roman victory over the Dacians.

And think about how your city’s cultural ‘evolution’ has created landmarks. For example, the tallest structures in a city used to be church spires. Now they are skyscrapers housing banks.

 Can you demonstrate cultural shifts in your world in a similar way?

Have fun, get lost in your city, and see what you find.

And if you don’t live in a city, find some ancient sites near where you live? Visit them, study and, if it’s possible, learn what they were used for. Then see how you could incorporate this site into your otherworldly city.

By combining real, local things with your imagination, not only will you create more associations between your secondary world and this world, you’ll engage your audience in a more meaningful way.

Just don’t beat yourself up trying to describe every little detail of a landmark. Often, a few hints is enough. Your audience’s imagination will fill in the rest.