Creating Maps for Your Stories: Why You Should Do It and Why It’s Not as Scary as You Think

February is Fantasy Month 2

Maps.

They are such a nice addition to a fantasy book. Especially if the realm is large or completely fabricated from the author’s head.

But do you need a map?

Well… yes.

Hold on, before you start shouting at me that you’re not a cartographer or even an artist… let me explain. No, you do not need to include a professional-looking map in the published final version of your book. Maps are a nice-to-have thing that some readers love, but aren’t absolutely necessary. (I like maps in books, but… confession time… I almost never look at them while I’m reading a book… and rarely look at them when I’m done. It’s usually a thing I notice when I open the book, stare at for a moment, and then move past).

But I’m not talking about that map. That’s something you can figure out when you get closer to your publication date. I’m talking about a map just for you. Something to help you as you write your story so that you can keep directions consistent and know where things are and roughly how far apart they are as you write. This will help you out a lot when you get to the editing phase of your book, because you won’t have accidentally made some landmark 200 miles away and then managed to get your on-foot hero to that landmark in a day or two. You don’t need to be an artist, and you don’t need any fancy computer program. A piece of paper and a pen will be fine (that’s how most of my maps start out).

When I started writing King’s Warrior, I had a very basic map that I drew up with a pen. A friend took that map and made a larger version for me with color and some terrain, and eventually my husband turned it into the map inside the book today.

Aom-igh map Final.

But that is not how it started! Now that I’m working on Turrim Archive, I currently have a very basic map, that we will eventually turn into something beautiful. Turrim Archive is a medium sized world, taking place on a single small continent and none of the rest of the world is necessary for the story. The people on this continent have no knowledge of any other land-masses or people groups on their world.

IMG_9564 2

As you can… not see very well because of the whole picture-of-a-picture thing… what I have here is a basic shape of the continent, with rather a lot of things drawn all over it in various colors so that I can keep things straight. I added a scale to it so that I knew what distance existed between points. Now, this map has come together slowly over the course of five books. I did not have everything on here when I started. I knew the basic country borders, and a few towns and a landmark, but much of this map got filled in as I wrote and as the characters went on their adventures.

Even for a shorter story, I’ll pull out a piece of paper and jot down a quick map of where things are. For example, in my fae story that I recently sent out to beta readers, I drew this:

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Which should go to demonstrate that this whole map-making thing REALLY doesn’t require any skill or artistic talent. Or significant amounts of time. But I knew I wanted an island with a forest in the center (and I changed my mind after the first attempt and decided to make the forest bigger, hence the scribbly bits on the western side) with a stream running through it and down into the village. I wanted Echo’s house to be up on a the end of a peninsula and for the village to be down near the southern shore. So, in order to keep all the directions and distances straight in my head, I sketched out this truly horrible diagram that I would generally never show to anyone, but am making an exception here to prove a point and because I love you. *grin* The world of this story is small, but I still had to do a little world building.

So let’s take a closer look at the world I introduced you to yesterday, shall we? I have a few maps to show you a little bit more how a world can start out small and grow as you write the story.

Wolford Downs - Area

Here we have the tiny village of Wolford Downs. As you can see, there’s not a lot there, just a little village with roads/traffic coming in from the four cardinal points on the map, and they’re surrounded by forest. My husband created this map when he was running a D&D game for us and some friends. This provided the “home base” location for our adventures.

Town of Wolford Downs

Here we have the same town, Wolford Downs, but it has grown a bit. This was for a second game we played, that took place about 20-30 years after our first game. The town has grown a bit, the forest has been tamed, walls have been built, and this place is becoming more than a simple village. (You can even use maps to help you create a bit of history for your world, though you definitely don’t have to!)

Eldoran Commonwealth Map

Now we zoom out quite a ways and we see the continent on which Wolford Downs is located. (For context, it is about a 2-days’ walk west of the dot called “Eldoran” on the eastern shore).

As you can see, this map is not completely fleshed out, but there are some regions/cities named, a few places where terrain has been set, and plenty of space to take your characters on adventures. You can also see by the scale that this is not a tiny little continent.

And if you want to go to the global scale…

Revelod Map

You can!

One of the goals with Revelod has been to create a “world sized” realm, with large continents full of history and plenty of space to write stories in. As you can see, this map still needs a lot of things filled in. But that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be super detailed in order to get started on writing. The details can come later.

So much of your map is going to depend on the story you want to tell. What size world do you want for your story? How are people getting around? Clearly, people in Revelod can’t just hop in a canoe if they want to get from the Eldoran Commonwealth over to Seyberron or the Tundaran Empire. So what kind of technology is available? What is the main method of transportation? Are there continents/countries/regions in your world that do not come into your story? Do you have an idea of why they don’t or what keeps them from being important in your story?

You’re also going to want to think about where on the planet your countries are with regards to the poles and the hemisphere so that you know how the seasons work and what the weather will be like throughout your story.

Mountain Segue

Do you enjoy maps in books? As a reader, do you study maps when you find them in books, referring to them as you read, or are you more like me, appreciating them but not using them as much? As an author, have you created maps for your stories? Why or why not? If you are a writer who has been hesitating on the whole map-drawing thing, I hope that this post has helped make it seem far less daunting!

Make sure to come back tomorrow, because we will be talking about naming things in our worlds and what we should consider when we start thinking about what to call all the things in our fantasy realm.

~ jenelle

13 Comments

A. M. Reynwood

I love maps! Maps are awesome, and as a reader I do like to study them (although not always while in the middle of the story, because I don’t want to stop reading to look). As a writer I’ve found maps to be monumentally beneficial, for every point that you’ve made in this post. The thing is, so far all my landmasses look like body parts. The one continent is kind of brain shaped, and the other one resembles a femur . . . I have no idea why.

Right now I’ve got a huge one drawn out on four sheets of poster paper taped together, which might be a bit overkill, actually, but I graphed it out so I could calculate the size of the nation and estimate travel time. The real trouble is going to be scaling it down to make a more complete version for readers to look at!

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jenelle

That’s funny that your continents look like body parts. Mine always end up looking like wavy circles. Or dragon’s heads…. [shrug]

Sometimes you have to draw it BIG to begin with! Both the Minstrel’s Song world map and Revelod actually started out as pencil drawings on something like 8 sheets of paper taped together, my husband scanned them into the computer and used some photoshop magic to make it something we could actually fit into the front of a book. I’m not sure how he did it, but I know it can be done. When you get there, I’m sure he’d be willing to walk you through it so you don’t have to hand-draw your down-scaling if you don’t want to.

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Sarah Pennington

I love maps in theory, but I always forget to consult them. xD And then I’m like “I couldn’t figure out where anything was in relation to anything else!” and other people are like “Sarah, there was a MAP.” And I’m like “¯\_(ツ)_/¯”

Anyway. As far as my own books go, I used to create maps, but now I mostly just wing it. Which may not be the best option, honestly, but since most of my recent novels have been on a more local scale, it works. I do need to redraw several of those maps for when I start rewriting some of my novels, though. :P

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jenelle

I’m the same way. I’m like, “ooooh! a shiny map! I shan’t look at it right now because it means nothing to me as I haven’t read the story yet.” Then, halfway through the story, “Hmmm, I wonder where Zephestia is in relation to Drellen and what the terrain between them is like. Huh. I can’t picture this at all. I wish there were some sort of handy device somewhere that I could look at that would make this clear. Oh well.” *keeps reading* :-D

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Energyflux2012

I enjoy maps in fictional worlds, as it adds depth to the experience. Having skills in cartography, environmental science, and digital art definitely help, but they aren’t required. Some writers are timid about make maps because it’s so different from crafting words on a page—now you need to forge something visual.

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jenelle

I have no skills in any of those things (clearly). :) Yeah, it can be daunting, having to draw something if that’s not your strength. Thankfully, (for me) basics are… basic. :)

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Wyn Estelle

When I was a fledgling writer (back in the Elder Days, when I was like 10-13), I used to draw pretty detailed maps on big pieces of parchment paper that my mom gave me (that way, they could have lots of space and be detailed and as a plus looked super cool and actual maplike). Then, from after I was 13, most of my writing took place in a world I had already mapped back during the early days, so I there wasn’t any need for me to do any more mapping. Until, that is, when I sat down to write The Dragon’s Flower and realized my world was speedily growing and needed to be mapped–and I hadn’t done any mapping for about 7-8 years. So I took a pencil and startled scrawling on a paper, and the rough outline of a map formed. It was a little rough at first (I drew some of the rivers backwards, whoops), but when the time came to publish I just traced the outline of the countries and roads and rivers and added details once I scanned it into the computer. It was really helpful during the writing process, especially when figuring out traveling routes and things.

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jenelle

Love it! I could tell you had a map of some kind for Dragon’s Flower, because the world was super well thought out and I never got confused about where things were in relation to each other. The consistency of how long it took to get places was great!

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J. L. Mbewe

Yes! Maps!! I love them. As a reader, I study them before diving into the story, and then as the story progresses, I will check it when the story mentions an important location or to see where the characters are in comparison to their journey.

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Christine

MAPS. I. love. maps!!! I actually DO constantly go back to look at them whenever characters make it to a new place. I’m such a nerd. I just love seeing exactly where they are on the map and what’s around them and how far they’ve traveled and ALL OF IT. I get so ridiculously excited when I open a book to find a map in it. XD

And YES to everything you said in this post! I have definitely drawn out maps for a couple of my stories even though I…erm…make stick people look deformed. Drawing is NOT my forte, in any sense of the word. BUT just a few scribbles to be able to see where everything is can help so very much. My map was my LIFELINE for one series I wrote. But I also totally agree that sometimes it’s best to keep it sparse at the start, because as you write, new landmarks will crop up on their own.

Basically, I couldn’t agree with this entire post more! (Also, Wolford Downs is an epic name and sounds so fantasy-ish! I love it! :D)

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bennyfifeaudio

If you’ve ever played Carcassone or another Tile building kind of game, its a great way to come up with a random map. I’ve thought that when I get around to writing my own material that it would be a fun way to create a world to begin with.

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