Geography and Maps (part 1)

At the same time I started writing the history for my world building project I began work on an important visual aid: a map.

Geography influences culture and people. Consider the differences between Miami (hot, humid, sea-level, borders the ocean) and Denver (dry, mile-high, borders the plains and the mountains). Although not imperative, maps are a great aid for fantasy readers who are asked to absorb an entire world. A mystery set in New York City allows the reader to summon images that school, television, movies, and countless other media have provided. The fantasy writer possesses no such head start.

Maps have always fascinated me. In the days before internet they were my imagination’s alternate means of transportation. All that information at a glance!

Early on I learned about road maps. When I was little, in the days before convenience stores, they were acquired at gas stations, which were seemingly on369088_folded_roadmap every corner. Mileage. Road sizes. Town names. County lines. The available information went on and on. I learned to visualize the unseen landscape and then, maybe, match my visualization with reality.

My young self, traveling without technological entertainment and unable to read books without suffering nausea, found thrills on those folded vistas:

The road becomes squiggly up ahead. Might there be a lot of hills? It must be, for the river’s blue line follows the same course…

The elevation on that mountain is so high I should be able to see it from here. Is that its snow-capped summit or are those clouds…?

There’s a huge lake close…maybe there’ll be a break in the trees and I can catch a glimpse…

Maps and the open road were adventure. In those days I’d sit in the passenger seat with the map and act as “Dad’s co-pilot.” Those memories, which came during a difficult time in my life, are cherished.

Map of New Zealand. 1768-1771. James Cook and Charles Praval. British Library Collection

At home the world I explored via maps existed in encyclopedias, National Geographic, and, later, history books. I look now at Captain Cook’s New Zealand map and see the bridge to fantasy writing, for those islands that he explored are where LOTR was filmed.

Fantasy novel maps are function, storytelling, and sometimes art. The most famous were Tolkien’s beautiful Middle Earth maps, which have evolved into their art category. I’m serious. Google his maps and sit amazed at how many artists have re-imagined his maps while remaining true to the originals.

Tolkien's Middle Earth

Tolkien’s Middle Earth

Over the years a rough map for my fantasy series had formed in my mind. I knew for certain that Hartise was located at the continent’s center. From a storytelling perspective I wanted lands for my characters to explore. At the same time, I knew that Hartise was virtually all that remained of a vast Empire that collapsed into chaos (before that it was the northern third of a kingdom, but that’s another story).

The important question, then, was how had a landlocked region managed to survive? There were heroes, of course, and reasons why the invading armies were weakened. At the same time, there were geographical features that aided their fending off the legions coming north from the Boiling Wastes.

Hartise sketch (2000)

Hartise sketch (2000)

Hartise (2003)

Hartise (2003)

In my haste and excitement I reached for the closest paper, realized there was writing on it, flipped it over, and started sketching. It’s difficult to believe that after 13 years that sketch survives. Too, most of those original features were retained. Primary were the protective mountains to the southwest, east, and north. Too, the southern border remained a lowlands marsh. Looking at it now I note a few changed names and that I hadn’t yet created names for the colleges.

That sketch remained my only map until I committed to creating a more elaborate version that possessed a 3D aspect and was intended for eventual publication. The memory is hazy now, but I believe it took at least 18 months to create the bigger, more detailed map that I drew by hand.

Central Hartise

Central Hartise (2006)

Later, I wanted that map on my computer, but ran into a problem: The Hartise map was 4x bigger than my scanner. In the end I scanned it in four sections and then reassembled it in Photoshop. Even later came another project. Despite my best efforts the original labeling was often difficult to read. Thus, I painstakingly removed my writing and replaced it with a computer font. There now exist multiple versions of a map that began as a sketch on a scrap piece of paper.

60 Replies to “Geography and Maps (part 1)”

  1. excellent-sounding project. I used to draw maps all the time, they’re a great way to make things concrete and give every part of a world its own place.

    • Thank you. That’s a great way to describe how they add to my project. The world does take on a more “concrete” aspect to it when I can look at it…does that for the reader, too. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Wow – what a great project and how helpful it must be to the ‘back story’ of your created land. I too love maps, but have never tried to draw my own fantasy land, but now I’m challenged! I believe map reading and directional understanding is a special skill that not everyone has, but clearly, you do.

    • Thank you. I never thought of it as a special skill, but perhaps I’ve taken it for granted. How much better for us all if we realized our talents. You should sketch a fantasy map, it might, at the least, be therapeutic in that it frees the imagination and allows you to visualize your hopes and dreams. That places one foot in the painter’s world and that’s a good thing. Thanks again for another thoughtful comment.

      • Yes, sketching is a good idea. As a writer, one could even sketch the characters – even if just a broad, generalized sketch that gives an overall impression of the character. That could move the writing to a more intimate level.

        • I so agree, and that’s especially true if you’re an artist any kind. Each character is a puzzle and it’s for us to find as many pieces as possible and realize the whole. Any visual aid is important and it’s all the better if you can create it. A character’s background/history is also invaluable along with a fact sheet that describes their physical appearance and personality traits. I don’t like to dump all that on the reader, but it helps me write.

    • Thank you. Any kind of visual aid is useful and if you have a special artistic skill that’s even better. It all helps to solidify the vision you have. Thanks again for the comment, Audrey.

    • Oh yes, there’ll be a part two and it’ll arrive on Thursday. I’m not sure if I’m completely understanding your second question. my Hartise maps here are dated according to the version and there isn’t one after I added the new labeling with the computer in 2006. As for dates in the story: Where Light Devours occurs in 4162-63, The Journal (the first draft story I post here) occurs in 4163, and The Other Side of the Aperture will begin in 4163. I sure hope I answered your question in there. If not, please ask for clarification. Thanks for the comment!

    • Great point. Maps, drawings, paintings, photos…any visual that’s included enriches the reader’s experience. And still there’s room for the imagination to roam. Thanks for an insightful comment.

  3. In Fantasy novels, I often love just looking at a map for a while, and getting a feel for the world.
    As a writer, making a map is one of the first things I make for the world, and constantly refer back to. Some things are adjusted as I write, but generally, the map informs the story. Although, my maps are not as ornate as yours.

    • Oh yes, I do the same…open the new book and gaze at the map while my imagination travels those roads. Of course, some maps have more detail than others, but I go as far as the map creator allows me to go. What makes me all tingly all over is if there are mysterious places with intriguing names and especially if there are “ruins” (ruins mean history and, possibly, dramatic changes). Everyone has their own “map style” and I’m sure yours is every bit as enticing as anyone’s. Too, the map is most important for the writer’s consistency and imagination. Loved the comment, thank you.

  4. I’ve done something similar. I haven’t scanned it, though. I started out with a single page map, then started adding details, such as country borders, and so on. I split my map into 16 and redrew the entire map in much more detail. I’ve also done plate techtonics, climate/habitat map, and polar projections. Lots of fun! I need to get back into it and draw each country. But the thing is, I’m doing this for a science fiction series of novels, not fantasy.

    • Your map’s evolution is similar to my own, but some of your details…wow! Impressive. I have explored wildlife/creatures, industry, economics, etc. and have some of that information on a map that I use for reference only. I’m not a devoted science fiction reader (Orwell, Bradbury, and Simmons were influences, though) so I’ve not heard of someone else in the genre doing what you’re doing. Is it common? I can see where, from a science standpoint, what you’re doing would be important. A fascinating comment…thank you.

      • I don’t think it’s common to find maps in science fiction, although I’ve seen it in Dune and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. Mine is kind of a melding of sci-fi and fantasy, though. While it’ll be sci-fi, it will have a fantasy feel to it.

        I’ve only touched a bit on economics and industry. Animals will be interesting, as I’ve only just gotten into developing them.

        Much of what I’ve done for my maps uses my science background, as I studied astronomy with a bit of geology in university. Never worked in the field, but at least it’s been useful for me in some way.

        • Truly, we’re flip sides of the same coin, for my story is fantasy with a few sci-fi touches. Now that you mention those maps I remember them. Thanks for that.

          Remember, one of the joys of writing is that nothing we’ve every experienced or learned is useless. Nothing. You’re living proof of that, employing your studies to create a world.

          Although I only took one class in geology (I’m a bit of a science nit-wit), it fascinates me. While others are busy writing about flowers I’m going on about granite’s quartz crystals beneath my fingertips on a warm summer’s day. Yeah, that’s me. I truly admire flowers and trees and all things that thrive in the world, but rock goes deeper, rock stretches to the planet’s heart.

        • Writing about what you know is especially true when it comes to blogging, it seems, though I haven’t been doing it all that long. On the other hand, in the world of fantasy fiction I often find myself in uncharted territory when characters take me places I’ve never been. Still, though, there’s usually some element I can relate to and that serves as my anchor. Yes, the background is rock! It’s actually a granite pattern chosen because it would replicate well and appear (largely) continuous.

      • Good choice for a background. It works well.

        The thing I love about fantasy and science fiction is the unknown. I love exploring, not only in novels, but in my own environment. I’ll wander around a neighbourhood I’ve never been to before for a couple of hours taking pictures, trying to capture the atmosphere of the place. I love feeling the atmosphere of different places. I think when creating a world, I end up getting a feeling for each place the more I work on designing and evolving it. That’s especially true with map-making. Just looking at the map gives me an impression of what each place is like.

        • Excellent point. If we’re not open to our own environment and take the opportunity to explore new ones we reduce our ability to create. Photography is perhaps the best way to force us to focus on our environment and see it in different ways. In that sense routines become our enemy. We go in the same buildings, drive the same streets, and after awhile don’t see what’s around us. Sadly I don’t travel as much as I used to, but I’ll be on the road at the end of the month and look forward to it.

      • I wish I could do some traveling, but unfortunately, it’s not possible at the moment. Too busy.

        I spend a little time every day taking pictures of different things. One thing that it’s made me do is start to learn the names of flowers and birds here in Japan. I also seek out historic sites, which are great for getting ideas for fantasy.

        • I really need a decent camera. Don’t have one. The camera lens takes you in tight or allows your perspective to take a step back. Too, when you experiment with different angles you see more clearly that different perspectives are truly different. You’re right, historic sites a fabulous for ideas. There are virtually none where I live, but I’ve been to some in the past. Of course, I can’t imagine the ideas that must flow when immersed in a completely different culture. I’ve been all over the US, but nothing would compare.

        • I really need a decent camera. Don’t have one. The camera lens takes you in tight or allows your perspective to take a step back. Too, when you experiment with different angles you see more clearly that different perspectives are truly different. You’re right, historic sites a fabulous for ideas. There are virtually none where I live, but I’ve been to some in the past. Of course, I can’t imagine the ideas that must flow when immersed in a completely different culture. I’ve been all over the US, but nothing would compare.

      • I don’t have an amazing camera, but at least it’s pretty new. However, I tend to use my iPhone a lot more these days.

        I live in a city with plenty of historic sites, including an island with lots of temples, shrines, caves, and narrow shopping alleys. The next city over is Kamakura, which used to be the capital of Japan around 900 years ago. It has so many old shrines, temples and other sites. It’s also the birthplace of the ninja.

        • That’s quite a rich environment. I’m envious. History going back 900 years and longer…I can only imagine. Growing up on the east coast I thought history reached far to touch me and that was only several hundred years. Here, it’s less than half that. I sometimes think my fantasy writing is as much grounded in the wondrous places I’ve seen as in the places I wish I’d seen. Perhaps it’s the same for readers? Wish I knew for sure, but maybe it’s better that I don’t. I think it’s better that we pull as much wonder to us with both hands and then plant it, tend it, and grow our imaginations. Drink up all you can around you. Certainly it’s vast beyond imagining. From your experiences now only great things shall come.

      • The history around here is around 30 or 40 thousand years, actually. But written records and artwork dates back more than a thousand years. I grew up in the Canadian prairies, which have a very short history of colonisation, though the native history is quite long. However, there isn’t a written account of their history, it’s only passed down in stories. It makes writing fantasy interesting, though. Do the people have a detailed written record of their history, or do they just pass down stories through the generations?

        • Okay, now I’m laughing at myself. I should have known the history there was that old. I can relate to the brief record you mention because I live along the edge of the US prairie. This town was incorporated less than 150 years ago. There are ancient native stories pertaining to the region, but little pertains to this specific area. You’re right, though, that legends and history are important to fantasy writers…different, but both powerful. In LOTR the ring’s past is mostly legend, but that mystery makes it all the more powerful. At the same time, the moment when Gandalf reads from the dwarf tome in Moria, “…They are coming,” is chilling. And then they hear the goblins. Shivers. I love uncovering history and legends when I write.

      • I absolutely loved reading The Silmarillion. Part history, part religious text, part legend. It’s quite fascinating, and it actually makes the legends in LOTR seem more real. I wish I can make a world as deep and complex as Tolkien did.

        • Yes, I agree. I read the Silmarillion many years ago and you describe it well. Tolkien certainly set the bar. Of course, the depth he created was primarily focused on the areas where he possessed the greatest knowledge: linguistics and ancient myths/legends. Thus, the in-depth history (including the Silmarillion) and the elf language. At the same time there are some interesting omissions. For instance, we know more about the various times hobbits enjoy eating than we know about female hobbits. He was a smart man in that he stuck to what he was comfortable writing.

      • You’re right. I’ve hardly heard anything about female Hobbits. The Silmarillion didn’t really describe the Hobbits much, either. It was much more focused on much older history.

  5. Drawing maps is one of my favorite parts of making a fantasy world. There is something about looking down at the landforms and roads and rivers and seeing it all in your mind.

  6. Part of my practice involves topographic research, creating sculptures and drawings relating to the influence of the landscape on one’s sense of self. This work is not yet up on my site but feel free to check out where i have it documented. The work ended with the creation of a musical representation of the map on which the work was based.

  7. Cool maps! Maps are as much a part of any fantasy world as the writing. I think it was largely Tolkien who set that one up – but then, he really defined the whole genre in its modern form.

    I had similar adventures computerising a map I’d drawn in the early 1980s, never intended for scanning. I found it, faded and rather badly eaten, and had a go. Took a lot of effort and in the end I ran out of grunt on the computer – the map was made up of multiple A2 sheets put together with white glue and tape. One day, when tech advances enough and I get some time, maybe… Time, I think, more than anything else.:-)

    • A great story and one I can completely relate to. Thanks for sharing. I imagine finding that map was a bit like me discovering that original sketch buried in other papers that I should have discarded. I agree that restoring yours only requires time. I’m not Photoshop genius, but was able to alter the writing in mine. It took a lot of time and was painstaking. The advantage of my computer version is that I can work with Photoshop layers, enabling me to turn the labeling “on” and “off” as I desire. Still, I imagine that a true Photoshop genius would laugh at my dreadfully slow approach that requires my zooming in so tight to work that the tiny lines resemble wide avenues. One day you’ll restore your map, I’m certain. Thank you so much for the comment.

  8. Great story of maps and creativity, and how that intersects with evolving technology. I have been traveling all over India for work (I work in transportation development) which involves looking at local maps that, if you travel far enough out, are still hand drawn. It makes me feel like I’m traveling in time – both shocked that people still use hand drawn maps, but completely inspired at how much personal care has gone into them (I can barely survive without my iphone GPS). Here is a post with some pictures of it –

    Thanks again for sharing from another map-lover!

    • Thank you. Lovely pictures…I envy your globe trotting. Via my writing I’ve made many friends who are from India. I adore that aspect of modern technology. I looked at the map you pictured and there’s a certain brilliant simplicity to it, for it removes the distractions and gives only the essential information. In other words, it’s all about function. Thank you so much for the comment.

    • You’re right. In many ways it grounds the story. When characters roam it’s a place for readers to return to for their bearings. I spent far more time on each of my maps than I should have, but each one was a labor of love. Thanks for the comment.

  9. Wow. You have put so much time an effort into making a map that will make your story just that much better. I’ve been trying to do so for a story of my own featured in a semi-medieval time but have never seemed to perfect it, nor is it nearly as detailed or as beautifully constructed as yours. Perhaps you could give me a few tips to help out ? Truth be told I don’t have lost the motivation to write for the time being, but hope to do so in the near future when the time is there to do so.
    Excellent articles and I hope the best for what your map will turn into as it is shaped into a story for your characters to roam in.

    • Thank you very much, your compliment and comment are both appreciated. I’m something of a frustrated artist so I devote far more time to my maps than are probably necessary. Many great fantasies had maps that were far simpler. In the end, it’s the story that matters the most. When that’s clear in your mind any map comes more easily.

      Tips? First and foremost the map should flow from what you see in your mind when you visualize your story. One vision I had was a dark, brooding castle in a vast mountain range. That became Talonton Keep…the header on my site (no, I didn’t paint it, but wish I did). Another was a seemingly endless prairie. That became the Baris Plains.

      Another approach is to think about locations from around the world. Backdrop Cliff at Asbray was inspired by El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. I lived a portion of my life in New England and that region inspired the Triad Hills.

      If you create even a small history you can draw from it. Many of the city names on my map come from the history. Baris is named after one of the leaders who helped save Hartise when the Empire collapsed. What could be better than to name a rough and tumble city after him. In contrast, Vernathia was named after a beautiful queen with a great love for the arts. That city ended up in an equally beautiful region similar to Napa Valley in California.

      In the end you end up with all these pieces to a large puzzle and you assemble them, filling in here and there as needed. You mentioned that your story is semi-medieval. Clearly defining that, if you haven’t already, would aid you. You can create an entirely new world or base it on a modified Middle Ages Europe or turn the world on its head and construct a medieval Australia. There are no limits. The best of luck!

      • As one who makes maps for a living I am intrigued by your love of maps. I think you would enjoy my novel so please check it out. I plan on reading more about you when I get the free time. It all sounds so interesting. 🙂

        • Maps and I share a past and they’re an integral item in the world building toolbox along with the history, which I’ve already covered. Of course, more important than the world building is the story, which I’m certain you already know. I’ll certainly grab some time and investigate your book.

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