Q&A: Mapping Your World

I have a question about cartography, actually. You see, I think my story could be a whole lot easier to write and much more realistic and interesting if I knew specifically where everything was, instead of ‘village x in the east gets attacked and the heroes flee back to the capital’ sort of vagueness. But I’m not sure how to start. I have a bunch of rough map drafts, but a lot of things on them are quite arbitrary and could move around at a whim. Flairé would help me out if he could, but his memory is so hazy it’s not really very helpful.

How should I go about this?

Thank you!

Hey there, Illinia — thanks for the great question! As a matter of fact, map-making was something I’ve wanted to touch on for a while. So I appreciate you giving me the chance to talk about it.

I fancy maps, myself. I feel that creating a map of your fictional world is not only a great tool for reference, but a great process for learning more about your world. Putting a map down on paper helps to make things more solid in a visual way while promoting geographical consistency in your world. There’s nothing worse than writing a piece and accidentally contradicting yourself location-wise simply because you haven’t nailed down a map for your own reference!

I’d say, the first step is to have fun with it. Don’t take it too seriously or it’ll become something more overwhelming than it needs to be. You mentioned having rough drafts, and I think this is a great way to approach map making. You are world building… and like everything that you build, it will develop in stages, possibly over periods of time. So don’t get frustrated with yourself for not having all the answers from the get-go.

A map doesn’t have to be a work of art, either. Draw some upside down “V”s and you got a mountain range. Some squiggly stuff works as a forest. A patch of dotty land is a great representation for a desert.

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Map

Start with what you know. Nail down the location of your major cities and big points of interest for your story. Just suck it up and put some dots on the page.

Consider what climate and land-type surrounds your people and their settlements. Or vice versa — sometimes the culture and the people will tell you what sort of climate they should live in. Do you have sea-fishing peoples? Great excuse for creating their own little sheltered bay… or stormy ocean. Do you have folks in the desert? Throw a dangerous desert surrounded by tall mountains that harbor that one safe oasis of life.

Consider the traveling distance between locations. Have you already written about some of these places in your story? Go back to your scripts and see how much time to took to move from place to place. That will give you an idea of how close or far away to put your major locations on your map.

Allow the flexibility for future expansion. Know that any map you create is a work in progress. You and your characters are always going to make new discoveries that you can pencil into your map as they come. Give yourself some space to do that… there’s nothing more “blah” than a world where you already know it all!

David Eddings’ Marked Maps

Developing the map can go either way. You may learn more about the landforms as your characters travel through these places. Or you may wish to have the basic climate and landforms already drafted on the map to help give your journey a foundation. Maybe a bit of both.

Check out maps of stories you enjoy and study them a bit. It’s always good to have references on hand. See as a reader what you felt worked or didn’t work in those maps and use the best aspects to help develop your own.

Here is a great little article that helped the development of Dreigiau maps. May you find some of this information here, or there, of help!