Robert Louis Stevenson and Google Earth

by Federico Ferrario

I’ve never been to Idaho.

I’m sure the Idahoans are great people and that the Gem State is very beautiful, with its immense and unspoiled woods, its lakes, and national monuments like the Craters of the Moon.

If I look at the state map I read names such as Hells Canyon, Snake River, Lost River Range or Sawtooth Forest.

To a foreigner like me, these names evoke windy rivers that creep between rugged mountains, verdant valleys, and ancient and mysterious forests. I can almost see them, in my mind, one of the many declinations of the great American landscape.

When I started writing my novel The Dragon Seller, I have decided to set my story in Idaho.

Immediately however, I found myself in the embarrassing situation of having to describe places – with concrete and effective details – without actually having visited them.

Tourist guides, travel reports, even the web did not help me. For example, if you go to the Wikipedia page dedicated to

Idaho, you can find that its total population is about 1.6 million, or that its name derives (apparently) from a Shoshoni indian exclamation that means “the sun comes out of the mountains.” Or again, that Boise is the capital and that the state has 2 time zones.

You will not find anything, though, that can help you describe it in your novel.

How is it then possible to write about a place without ever being there?

This is a pretty common problem for us writers. Not always, in fact, we have the opportunity to visit the places where we set our stories. Sometimes they are too far away, sometimes we do not have enough money, or time to visit them.

In the case of Fantasy or Sci-fi writers, then, places exist only in their minds, or belong to a future that is only possible, and by no means certain.

There is, however, a tool that can help us in our work: the Map.

Perhaps the first modern writer to understand the importance of the Map was Robert Louis Stevenson.

According to the author of Treasure Island, the maps have an “infinite and eloquent suggestion”. He himself drew a sketch of the island before writing his novel, and that’s what happened, in his words:

“Somewhat in this way, as I pored upon my map of “Treasure Island,” the future characters of the book began to appear there vis’ibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weap’ons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting, and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew, I had some paper before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”

The map, for Stevenson, became “the most important element of the plot”, a tool through which he could draw inspiration and develop the story.

And that is, in a sense, the magic of maps. They are symbolic summaries of a real – or imaginary – landscape with the ability to create living and authentic places within our mind.

As stated by the critic Ricardo Padrón, “not only do maps allow us to picture places and spaces, but by telling stories that take place in them, or by sculpting characters associated with them, they give those places life and meaning.

(the RL Stevenson Treasure Island map)

Annette Lamb said that in YA and MG literature maps are very important to “excite and assist readers”, and help them “better understand the setting of the book including the time and place”.

A little-considered aspect is how maps are, however, important to the authors themselves.

Not being able to visit Idaho personally while writing my novel, I decided to rely on what is, today, the ultimate interactive map of our planet: Google Earth.

Sitting in front of my home PC, I could move virtually from Boise to Twin Falls, know the distance between the places, and through the Street View function even to “travel” on the streets of the state.

This has been of great help to create a base on which I then imagined the dystopian future of my novel, in which Drought has completely changed the landscape, and transformed the countryside around the capital into uninhabited and ghostly places – the Ghost Farmland.

And where Google only provided me with a blurry satellite image, my imagination completed the landscape, combining real elements with completely imaginary elements.

The more I studied maps of Idaho, the more my mind found new ways to go about the plot of the novel, or scenarios where my characters could act.

I found, like Stevenson, hidden links that inspired my story.

(Boise, West State Street on Google Earth, where the protagonist of my novel has his dragon shop)

Finally, the maps help us writers to imagine before, and then put on the blank page all those descriptive elements of the landscape – the structure of houses and roads, the height of the mountains, the path of the dark secrets of a Wizarding School or the the color of the fronds of a Forbidden Forest – that the reader absorbs only unconsciously as he reads, but that helps us writers to come in tune with our story.

For this reason, especially for writers dealing with fantasy and sci-fi novels, maps are a precious and powerful tool that can stimulate our imagination and make the descriptive parts more detailed and more realistic, helping us to fight one of the deadly enemies of those who do this job: Words Laziness (but of that, I’ll talk about it on another occasion).


My First Book, R.L.Stevenson.

Mapping Imaginary Worlds, Ricardo Padrón.

Imaginary Locations and Maps in Literature for Youth, Annette Lamb.

Header map made with Inkarnate

Meet the Author: Federico Ferrario.

I am sci fi and fantasy writer, on my debut novel with “The Dragon Sellers”.

I currently live in Milan, Italy, where I wrote three more novels and a book of poems, which still have to be translated into English.
I keep poetry in my heart and philosophy on my tongue (unfortunately, the brain is empty).

I love Jack Vance, Česlav Milosz, and i hate broccoli (so glad that i don’t like them, coz broccoli really sucks).
I am a star lover and a cosmist philosopher, the last of my kind.

Connect with Federico Ferrario:

If you want to learn more about my work, you’re welcome to visit my website

You can also connect with me on your favorite social media platform:

Don’t forget to check out The Dragon Seller!

As the Drought of the Century hits the United States, legendary creatures appear on Earth: Dragons.

Like one of the famous commercials says: “Thanks to advancements in genetic engineering, Dragons are finally out of myth, and in your local pet stores!
From playful Outbacks to unpredictable jade Tangs, these little dragons usually don’t burn much, they love fruit and don’t molest young virgins.
But they are still monsters, and Jack Ports knows this very well.
He sells all kinds of varieties in his Flight Garden, including the most dangerous of all: the American Mustang, a species of battle dragon created by a failed experiment of the U.S. Navy.

Dumped by his fiancee before the wedding and short on cash, Jack just wants to put his life back together, but after a colleague mysteriously disappears, he finds himself with a dragon egg of unknown origins.
Set on raising it, Jack discovers that the egg contains a primus, the first dragon of a new species, whose genes hide a secret that many men are looking for.

And some are willing to kill to have it.

You can read a sample of The Dragon Seller HERE, or buy a COPY HERE.