The Story's Setting Matters in Maps of America Literature

Use maps to follow a plot's time and place

Maps can show the American settings of novels, plays, and poems taught in ELA classrooms
Mina De La O/GETTY Images

When English Language Arts teachers prepare lessons on the different genres of American literature in middle and high school (grades 7-12), they will include the plot element of setting or location (time and place) of the story.

According to, a setting can also include the following:

" statuses, weather, historical period, and details about immediate surroundings. Settings can be real or fictional, or a combination of both real and fictional elements."

Some settings in novels, plays, or poems are very specific. For example, in Barbara Kingsolver's debut novel, The Bean Trees, the main character's VW Beetle breaks down in the city of Tuscon, Arizona. Arthur Miller's play The Crucible is set in 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts. Carl Sandburg has a series of poems set in Chicago, Illinois. The travels in and around such specific settings can be located on narrative maps or narrative cartography (the process or skill of making maps.)

Narrative Map -Narrative Cartography

A narrative map can be an explicit visualization of setting (time and place) according to a text. 

Cartographers Sébastien Caquard and William Cartwright write about this approach in their 2014 article Narrative Cartography: From Mapping Stories to the Narrative of Maps and Mapping:

"....maps are employed by scholars to better understand how the narrative is ‘locked’ to a particular geography or landscape."

Their argument, published in The Cartographic Journal, details how this "long tradition in literary studies" that many have used to map the settings of novels "can be dated back to at least the beginning of the twentieth century." They argue practice of creating narrative cartography has only accelerated, and they note that by the end of the twentieth century "this practice had grown exponentially."

Examples of American Literature With Narrative Cartography

There are multiple maps that show settings of novels in the American literary canon (or list) or for popular titles in young adult literature. While teachers will be familiar with the titles on map #1 and map #3, students will recognize many of the titles on map #2.

1. Map of Famous American Novels, State by State

Created by Melissa Stanger and Mike Nudelman, this interactive map on the Business Insider website allows visitors to click state by state on the most famous novel set in that state.

2. The United States of America-YA Edition

On the website, Margot-TeamEpicReads (2012) created this state by state map of the settings in popular young adult literature. The explanation on this website reads,

"We made this map for YOU! All of our beautiful (yes, you are all beautiful) readers. So feel free to post on your blogs, Tumblrs, Twitter, libraries, wherever you want!"

3. The Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature's Most Epic Road Trips

 This is an interactive literature-based map created by Richard Kreitner (Writer), Steven Melendez (Map).Kreitner admits to his obsession with road trip maps. He cites the same fascination of traveling across the United States that was expressed by the newspaper editor Samuel Bowles (1826-78) in the memoir Across the Continent:

“There is no such knowledge of the nation as comes of traveling in it, of seeing eye to eye its vast extent, its various and teeming wealth, and, above all, its purposeful people.”

Some of the famous road trips teachers may teach in high school on this literary map include:

  • Wild, Cheryl Strayed. 2012. 
  • On the Road, Jack Kerouac. 1957. 
  • Roughing It, Mark Twain. 1872.


Participatory Mapping

Teachers can also share the maps created on the website, Placing Literature. Placing Literature is a crowdsourcing website that maps literary scenes that take place in real locations. The tagline, "Where Your Book Meets the Map," illustrates how anyone with a Google login is invited to add a place to the literary database in order to provide location context to literature. (Note: Teachers should be aware that there may be restrictions on using Google maps with expressed permission).

These added locations can be shared over social media, and the website claims:

"Since its launch in May 2013, nearly 3,000 places from Macbeth’s castle to Forks High School have been mapped by users all over the world."

ELA Common Core Connections

English teachers can incorporate these maps of plot settings in American literature as informational texts in order to build student background knowledge. This practice may also help improve comprehension for students who are more visual learners. The use of maps as informational texts could be covered under the following standards for grades 8-12:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.7 Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.7 Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person's life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Sharing the settings of stories in map form is one way English teachers can increase the use of informational texts in their literature-based classrooms.