Maps. They’re sometimes artifacts, often art, hopefully tools, and all wrapped in a bit of magic. They’re a fantasy writers friend, but too often cursed to the point of phobia. I fell in love with maps as a child flipping through reference books, but that love isn’t shared by all. I’ve heard the objections:
“I’m a writer, not a cartographer.”
“What do I know about making maps?”
“Maps? That’s like an artistic thing.”
“Oh great, another thing I have to hire out along with my cover.”
“I know what’s in my world. Why do I need a map?”
So, do you need a map? Absolutely not. You needs lots of maps, maps of every kind rendered with any level of skill. I’m first and foremost a writer, and though I’ve always adored maps…make one? Are you kidding? Me?
Maps are your world in physical form. Let them help you.
In the beginning I realized I was already making maps anyway, but often used other descriptive terms like sketch or diagram. Sure, maps are visual aids for readers, but they’re also invaluable to writers as resources, world building aids, characters, and advertising. A symbiotic relationship exists between world building and maps and once I was opened up to the why I became curious about the how.
Let’s ease you into the world of maps by exploring the ways maps can serve you.
Simple or Temporary
We’ll start within everyone’s comfort zone in that place where maps meet diagrams and blueprints. You might even already be doing this.
For instance, a frequent reason for a simple diagram is to track characters in small spaces. What could be simpler than a rectangle with names surrounding it? Now you know where everyone is around the table, who they can overhear, and what they can furtively observe. All the better for your reader, too, if you exploit the possibilities. In Trust in the Forgotten my POV character, already a stranger to upper class affairs, is set beside her polar opposite at a dinner. Chit-chat becomes snide comments and tempers flair. Some lean forward to listen. Others wish they could slide beneath the table because they’re too close. Logistics.
I’ve also created simple blueprints when designing, for instance, a typical fortified home. Visualizing the rooms, their locations, and movement through them was essential in establishing needs, functions, and where aesthetics would be desired.
Sketching led to my first Carrdia map. I grabbed the closest sheet of used paper (the flip side was information pertaining to platte tectonics), flipped it over, and summoned what I knew to that point, beginning with the plains city, Baris. That simple sketch served as my go-to map for almost two years and over 90% of its features and labeling remain. A mapmaker was born.
My original Carrdia sketch dovetails into this category. These are the maps we create for ourselves as reference to aid our world building.
Take Baris, for instance. I knew it was on the plains, a destitute city because the mines closed down. The map revealed its centralized location made it a crossroads and stop on the river. Too, the harsh plains meant isolation and few people willing to remain. Isolation also meant distance from the corrupt government in the south. So, it was also a good place to disappear. These few facts led to story ideas and more world building.
The Carrdia sketch eventually led to a more elaborate map, but it was bulky and impossible to share until I scanned it into the computer in four pieces. No way I’d attempt a continent the same way. It was the early 2000s so I swallowed hard and used Paint, which I’d already used for diagrams and blueprints.
An early example is the map of Barnavava, the wizard city. I made it in Paint, coloring it pixel by pixel. It was a critical location so I wanted a lasting map. As was true in the backstory, history and magic were crucial to its development. For instance, on the map the Old City District, which was the initial settlement, is laid out in an irregular fashion compared to what came later. Further, magic inspired specific facilities, which led to developing their purpose. Facility purpose led to characters.
There are no barriers to how maps can serve the writer, thus a map’s world building influence can become participation in the story. What I’m calling character maps are those your characters create and use. As such, they should reflect the character’s abilities.
In a story I’m drafting for Camp NaNoWriMo a map is discovered that was created by an explorer/mapmaker. I therefore placed locations with care and provided detailed labeling. A second map, a hastily drawn copy depicting a portion of the first, required a different approach. Using a thick-leaded pencil, I made my minimalist map as fast as I could. Crude, but effective.
Just as I see and hear my characters, I see my maps and how they fit into stories. I see them through my characters’ eyes. Too, like a character, they provide feedback that aids developing the world and propelling stories.
Some maps exist as centerpieces, a virtual advertisement for an entire world like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. These maps get noticed and often wow people by virtue of their sweeping breadth. To this point, in my case, that’s Tremjara, the continent where Carrdia is located. I first attempted it on the computer in Paint over fifteen years ago. Limited computing resources restricted its size, in pixels, to 754 x 531. Labeling was minimal and it lacked definition. In comparison, the version in progress is 4800 x 3200.
Big maps provided for readers can come in any form that suits you or, more importantly, the story. Simple. Elaborate. What matters is whether it’s appropriate. Ever try to read an enormous, detailed map that’s compressed onto one page in a paperback? Not fun.
A Look at the Learning Curve
If I printed all my maps I’d have quite a stack. Yes, they’ve become more elaborate over time, especially after I purchased Photoshop Elements (PE) and a Mac in 2008. My increased mapmaking skills parallel the journey my writing has taken me through arcs, conflict, plot, voice, and all the other story elements.
Mapmaking commenced the same year I embarked on my writing trek. Seventeen years of trial-and-error (oh, the disastrous tales I could tell), practice, and studying other maps on Pinterest followed. I’ve also referenced the Cartography Guild on Deviant Art. Later came a few YouTube videos.
It wasn’t until 2015 that I created my first map entirely in PE. It required employing all I’d learned over the years and more. I drew the individual elements (hills, trees, etc.) by hand, scanned them into the computer, imported them to PE, and designated them brushes. After that I could apply them with ease, each element on a different layer.
Layers sound complicated, but they aren’t. It’s a matter of creating a new one, naming it, and adding the desired element(s). Think of each layer as a chapter. When all are compiled you have a complete map (novel). It’s like drawing on clear plastic and stacking the sheets. This year new improvements to Tremjara include applying color and fixing some minor issues.
All I’ve accomplished is possible because I approached the process like learning the writing craft or grasping Scrivener. Hand drawing or using the computer are only part of the process. Understanding culture, geography, climatology, a bit of earth science (like platte tectonics, for instance), and more are crucial. Then again, you need all that for world building.
If you can make a crude map you can world build and vice versa.
For each location on every map I’ve made there’s a mapmaking lesson, fantasy story, or potential tale I could share. No wonder I never have writer’s block (another benefit). Maps are about purpose and that stems from need, your need. Maps are also about enhancing characters and plots via the map/story symbiotic relationship.
So, do it. Make maps. Lots of maps. Visualize. Embrace another fantasy writing tool. Can’t make maps? Nonsense. Great maps? Maybe not, but even I’ve improved my skills and I’m no cartographer. Even crude maps serve as valuable tools. You don’t need a gold-plated screwdriver to get the job done!
Do you draw maps, diagrams, or blueprints? Do you use them as an aid in your writing? Do you suffer from a map phobia? Are you still struggling to see the benefits or would you like to do more?