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Mapmaking for Fantasy Authors

A good map is, I’d venture to say, just as vital to you as it is to your characters; you need a map to know the size of the world they occupy, the length of their journey, its difficulty, and distance. Furthermore, a good map serves as an important tool for your readers as well. It can give them perspective in a completely foreign world, offer subtle clues to the history and culture of your creation, and create mystery and the promise of adventure.

But just as a good map can bring a novel to life, a bad map can highlight an author’s shortsightedness, reinforce weak conceptual links between the stages of a plot, and direct reader attention to lazy writing and worldbuilding.

Maps as Writing Tools

Making a good map is not as simple as purchasing good design tools or the appropriate number of ink pens. Making a good map is a process of thought with clear stages. Each stage can be viewed as an important step in framing your world as well as in mapmaking. By making a map early in the writing process, authors can create a sense of time, place, scope, and scale, and allow this vision to color their writing.

The following guide offers 10 stages to mapmaking, pairing considerations at each stage with important technical decisions that will help authors create worlds which are more vibrant and believable. To follow along, pick up the following tools, and settle down beside your computer:

Tools:

Pencil-Ruler3 x #2 pencils

Colored pencils

Micron ink pen (the smaller the better)

A ruler

½ inch graph paper, printed from here: http://www.printaruler.com/download/paper/printaruler_paper_letter_grid_1-2inch.pdf

Tracing paper

A notebook (paper or digital)

Stage 1: Location

MAPBUILD2At this stage, consider where your story occurs. Does it happen in one nation, or several? Where do these nations sit in your world? Is it next to other, larger nations, or on an island? For each significant nation, make a heading on one sheet of notebook paper, and then skip a few pages before entering the next.

On the first sheet of graph paper, sketch the major landmasses and draft your ‘world’ map. At this point, it is perfectly acceptable to have a series of large, ugly blobs on your paper. Don’t get too tied up in perfection at this point. Just label each ugly blob with the names of the nations you know, take note of the position of each nation in your notebook, and move on to step 2.

Stage 2: Size

How big is each nation? Keep in mind that scale is often representative of political power.

On a new sheet of graph paper, redraft your ‘world’ map with the following considerations. In your home nation is an underdog, consider changing the scale a bit in relation to the larger nations to reinforce this status. If, on the other hand, your nation is one of the most powerful, consider making it large. As you redraft this map, take notes on the scale of each nation in your notebook, as well as reasons for why it is important that each nation be large or small.

As you draft this second world map, also take into consideration the poles of your world, as well as the equator. In your notebook, take note of which nations are located in hotter and cooler climates. This will not only influence which types of flora and fauna they have at their disposal, it will also influence political advantages and disadvantages. As details emerge in your head, enter them under each nation heading.

Finally, consider scale. This is EXTREMELY important. At the base of this semi-complete world map, make a bar that is 2 inches long, and make a line at the 1 inch mark, and then smaller hashes at the quarter inch marks in the first inch. Now determine how many miles/km are in each inch. This will influence EVERY other stage of the mapmaking process, and must be considered carefully. For our world, as a reference, maps presented in 81/2 by 11 have a scale of roughly 1:100 million, or 1 inch on the map represents 100 million inches in our world, or 1,578 miles. Clearly, you can’t fit much detail in this kind of map. For that reason, it is best to draft larger-scale maps of important nations, and use the ‘world’ map as a reference. It is important, however, to remain consistent with the size of your nations- take notes on the size of each nation, north to south and east to west, and replicate these sizes as you move to larger scale.

Stage 3: Shape

Pick up a 3rd piece of graph paper, and focus on one of the nations. (*Please keep in mind that this step will need to be repeated for each major nation your characters move through.)

Start by converting the scale from your ‘world’ map to your smaller nation map. For help on this occasionally sticky mathematical issue, I recommend consulting the following resource: http://www.library.arizona.edu/help/how/find/maps/scale/index.html. Once you have selected an appropriate scale for your larger map, consult your notes on your nation to determine how many blocks your new nation should take up. Please note that for oddly shaped nations, this may take a few tries- so have plenty of graph paper handy!

Once you have the general size of the map planned, draft out the edge of the nation. This is, quite honestly, my favorite part of the process. At this point, you get to create complex boundaries between nations, sea ports, fjords, and all kinds of other exciting details that make your nation unique. Just keep in mind that your nation must be able to continue to exist in spite of complex borders. This is a particularly important consideration for vital sea ports, peaceful land routes, and contentious boundaries. Trade routes MUST be navigable, borders MUST be defendable!

Stage 4: Features


Next, consider two critical questions: First, how flat is the terrain? I like to consider this issue first, because it heavily influences the second: what kind of water features does the nation have?

Start by drafting out simple upside-down v shaped symbols for mountains, and gentler curves for hills. Note the location of these mountains and hills in your notebook. Keep in mind that mountains can be a significant trade hindrance. Also remember that they can be a significant advantage when it comes to defence!

Next, consider the location of any mountains and hills in relation to the sea. To place a river, draw wandering lines from the mountains to the ocean, recalling how water falls- from high, to low. As you reach dips in the land, all lakes. Remember, these freshwater resources will create appealing locations for major cities! As you draw each major lake and river, take note of its location and the direction of its flow in your notebook.

Stage 5: Natural Resources

Pick up a piece of scratch paper, and identify which colors signify different types of natural resources: mines, timber, crops. Lay the blank piece of paper over your map, and lightly shade each area. Take note of the resources in each region of the nation in your notebook. Chances are, you will only use this information in your text- consideration of the location of different natural resources is, however, very important to do while you are considering the structure of your new nation. Once you are finished, set aside the natural resources overlay, and move on to stage 6.

Stage 6: Dangers

Move back to your main draft of the nation (on the graph paper). You have created the borders, mountains, rivers, and lakes. Now it is time to add flavor to that map! Consider all of the horrific dangers that make fantasy novels great: whirlpools, marshes, volcanoes, lightning sand. Get creative with your symbols, but take note of the location of each ‘danger’ in your notebook, as well as any interesting folk tales that come to mind.

Stage 7: Cities, Towns, and Villages

Now, review the ideal location for important cities, towns, and villages in your new nation. Remember that ports and water resources make for prime locations, particularly when fresh and saltwater meet. For each city, make a large dot, towns, make a mid-sized dot, and villages, make a small dot (feel free to use more complex symbols, but keep in mind you are working with a rough draft of the map.) Once you have identified your cities and villages, break out your eraser- and in a clear, consistent manner, clear spaces for the names of cities, villages, lakes, rivers, and mountains.

While naming your landmarks, consider the language and cultural background of the people in your world. If you are using an original language system, remember to keep consistent with your naming schemes. If you are basing your language system off of an existing language, think carefully about how you choose your names. Remember that words have meaning in the cultures you borrow from. Educate yourself on common naming systems within that culture, and use these systems to bring depth to your world. Additionally, consider borrowing from meaningful locations in the history of our world. This can add new and interesting dimensions to your creation, and encourage your reader to explore your world by using ours as a lens.

For features such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, be sure to carefully record each place name, as well as descriptive words, name meaning, mythology, flora, fauna, and any potentially significant plot points that could occur there. For occupations, take note of descriptive words, name meaning, mythology, cultural significance, population, and any relevant plot points which are tied to that location.

Stage 8: Tracing

After step 7, pick up another sheet of tracing paper. Lay it over your map outline, and trace everything carefully, in pen. This is the time to add detail and flavor. This will probably be the most lengthy step, but it is worth the time and care needed.

In  addition to a signature, a cleaned up scale, and details such as waves, special symbols, and other decorations, be sure to add a compass rose, to give your readers a clear sense of direction.

Stage 9: Scanning

Once you have completed your clean, traced map, make sure you scan it quickly, and make several copies. This will make digital modification much easier, offer you some blank copies for interactive note-taking, and save you the angst of spilling coffee on your sole copy.

Trust me. It will happen.

Stage 10: An Important Decision

You have completed a map which is suitable for your use as an author. But make no mistake- the same rules that apply to writing apply to maps and other supplemental art. What works for you may not, in fact, work for your readers.

At some point, you must decide if you will commission a professional version of your map. While you may fall in love with your hard-won version, a talented artist or designer can significantly improve your map by simply cleaning the text, or smoothing lines.

Regardless of your final decision- to use your version of the map, or to commission one- making your own map will focus your thoughts on the location, history, and layout of your world, by removing you from the busy rush of your plot. So sit back, and take some time to map out your world- it will help you map out your story as well! And please, please post links to your creations below!

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17 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    WOW! Phenomenal article Teagan :D Really going to help me with my mapmaking abilities as my most recent one was pretty average. Thank you :)

  2. Good steps for drawing maps by hands, thanks for sharing Tegan. There is a wealth of information you can draw as a writer from creating a map.

    I’ve always enjoyed creating mine in Photoshop. Cartographers Guild is a great resource for those who want to create their maps via electronic medium.

    It helped me make this: http://leifgsnotae.com/Pictures/PirateEmpire.jpg

    I’ll make sure to point my writing pals this way and let them know what is going on. Thank again for sharing with us!

    • Tegan Beechey says:

      Awesome work, Leif! I typically use photoshop myself. There are loads of amazing guides out there, as well as some neat tricks you can use on different layers to make random shapes into effective mountains. Also, wonderful brushes out in internet-land.

      Here’s my crack: http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2011/196/2/b/firedust_map_by_tabeechey-d3rhzy9.jpg

      • Erik says:

        Really fine work with your map there Tegan! But I must ask you why you use already existing names on cities?

      • Rick says:

        Very interesting article! I really love maps in general, so I’ve discovered that a significant part of my creation process is about making a very detailed and intriguing map for my readers. This guide will definitely help me on the way.

        And by the way, your map is awesome! I’m Swedish and recognise all of the beautiful city, town and municipality names you’ve borrowed from us. Nicely done!

  3. Great ideas and guides for map making. This is a terrific article. Thanks Teagan.

  4. Awesome. It’s useful not only for writers but, I think, also for RPG fans (like me) who ever wanted to create their own map of the imaginary world.
    This article is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks Tegan :-)

  5. Thanks for this, Tegan.

    I need to make a map, but I’m not great at graphics so I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way.

    Another helpful site I found for map making is these guys http://www.cartographersguild.com/

  6. Very good article on map making, but I have some additional recommendations. I am kind of obssesive about my map making. For some fantasy novels I have attached six sheets of graph paper to a piece of posterboard and made a map of an entire continent. After doing all the continents on their own piece of posterboard I adjusted the scale and made a world map. For science fiction, especially when wanting to portray several planets of an empire, I simply do two circles, which become half globes. Not a lot of detail, but it give some direction to features and locations. I have found a transparent ruler with scales to be really helpful. A book on geography can also come in handy (fortunately I have some college level Geology in my background so I have that part covered). Also highly recommended are geological survey maps or Gazatteirs to get a general idea of real terrain, and FM 21-26, the US Army Manual on Map Reading. Also Google maps, and zoom in close, to see what terrain features in our real world look like.

  7. Great advice – even though I didn’t do it that way at all. My map evolved with my world over several decades, going from one specific area to a wider one, and it was only this year I finally made a complete world-map (outline only, as the stories cover 10,000 years). The results can be found on http://www.nykiblatchley.co.uk/maps.html

    I always draw in pencil/pen, since I’ve yet to find a mapping program that does what I tell it (I want to plan the crinkly bits of the coastline, not leave them random) but then I scan them and add the writing etc on the computer.

    The one thing I’d add to that advice is not to consider your map definitive till the story’s finished, and possibly published – as with world-making, there are always tweaks to be added.

  8. Wow, really useful advice, thanks Tegan! :-D

  9. Fantastic article! Thanks very much!

  10. Ed Godwin says:

    Nice article. One additional recommendation I would make is to not commit to the layout of your world until you’re near the end of the story editing process. Remember, you are “the creator”. Just because the distance between one river and the next is x number of miles/km, doesn’t mean you can’t change it later if it improves your story. As long as you keep things believable on a geographic scale, the story should always take precedence over the map.

  11. Ashley says:

    Thanks! Great article, I usually cheat and use real world locations or historical maps.

  12. Nate says:

    I’m a big advocate of using maps as a tool for Worldbuilding and for attracting readers to your stories. When you think that 90% of all information to your brain is visual it makes sense to use maps. Plus the amount of information that can be delivered by a map:

    Geography, location distance, political power etc.

    Nate
    The Worldbuilding School

  13. Thank says:

    Interesting… I’ve needed something like this. Although I was looking for a map builder engine, to create a map for my novel, this page really made me think its simple. I will not use an engine builder, instead I will do it by myself. Thanks Ms. Beechey.

  14. Yuan Francois says:

    Thanks for the article. Been much help!!

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