The Visual Know: A Map for NaNoWriMo

Another year. Another NaNoWriMo. Another pitch on my part to inspire writers to pen their fantasy novels using a map. Yes, a map. Here I go again talking about maps or, more specifically, your fantasy map. I want that others also enjoy the representation of their world and see how it takes on a new dimension. Suddenly, it’s easier to see the location they’re writing about, but it’s also easier to see the region around it and have that visual spark questions for your imagination.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

The most common reason for not doing so is many writers are convinced they can’t draw a map. Really? Can you use Google Maps? Can you Google images of maps? Do you have an imagination and can summon characters and plot and an entire world out of your head? Are you seeing glimpses of your world when you’re planning for NaNo? If so, then the map is there waiting for you to sketch it.

You are world building, I hope. Please tell me you’re world building before you draft a fantasy novel so your characters aren’t muttering vague lines in front of a green screen because they have no idea where they are.

I’m going to refrain from chronicling my mapmaking journey and sharing images of maps that might intimidate people. Yes, I love to create maps and go far beyond what’s needed because I enjoy reaching for that line between art and function, but that’s me. Do the same, if you’d like, but for right now NaNo is close and you need a plan and a map is a part of that plan.

My maps haven’t always been (and aren’t always) fancy, especially in the beginning…

1st Carrdia Map (2000), CA Hawthorne. Even has notations I can't explain. Go figure.

1st Carrdia Map (2000), CA Hawthorne. Even has notations I can’t explain. Go figure.

When I started world building for Ontyre and, more specifically, Carrdia (which wasn’t even called that then) all I did was flip over a scrap sheet of paper (you can see writing bleeding through from the other side) and sketched a map on the back. It didn’t take me long.

I can’t believe I’m pulling this map out yet again, especially when, for the longest time, I thought I’d lost it.

Immediately, this map…

• Provided a better sense of scale and distance and identified what locations were close to one another and which were isolated.

• It identified where each land feature was located, along with water, and revealed barriers to travel and the likely weather patterns.

• From all that, various economies appeared, whether they were based on manufacturing, farming, shipping, fishing, livestock, etc.. That led to…


After a map is sketched you ponder locations. What might the people in the town along the river that’s clustered with other towns be like as opposed to those living in the isolated town on the plains or near a marsh or nestled in the hills? Whew! Long ponder.

Lost Hills (2017), CA Hawthorne. Crude, but effective for my purposes.

Lost Hills (2017), CA Hawthorne. Crude, but effective for my purposes.

In thinking about those people you wonder what they do, what their attitudes are, what religion they follow (or not), and so on.

You’re world building, and you’re starting to recognize the various forces that make cultures differ. Where did that town name come from? Is its name a reflection of location? History? If it was history then was it a name the locals chose for a reason. Maybe was it imposed by a conquering nation?

See what happens?

Yes, you can ask these questions without a map, but the map is an aid that hints at answers you couldn’t summon while drafting with little to go on. You also don’t have the time during NaNo. It also speeds up the world building process. Still, what’s most important are the characters.

• Is a character content where they are or do they dream of going elsewhere. Why?

• What are the chances they’ll be able to travel (remember: barriers and distance)?

• Is the next closest location similar to where they’re already located or is it radically different?

• How has the geography/weather/culture influenced the character?

• What skills do they possess as a result of the local economy?

This is all but a sample.

If you have directions for world building that’s great, it’s invaluable, and you should use it, but a map will make the process easier.

Here’s the bottom line: If you can’t decide where mountains, hills, rivers, lakes, and deserts are located in a sketch how are you going to do all that while writing in a hurry during NaNo, and how are you going to keep it all straight when time is so valuable?

Ah, I know, a map…

One Reply to “The Visual Know: A Map for NaNoWriMo”

  1. Pingback: The Visual Know: A Map for NaNoWriMo | Christina Anne Hawthorne

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