Posted in Blog Post Museum

Q&A: Mapping Your World

musemThis post is part of a blog museum, archiving old writing from a previous blog.


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!

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth

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!


I'm a technical writer by day, gaming gal by night. I have a wide array of gaming interests, though I most often blog about MMOs, RPGs, and Nintendo fanstuffs. Like what you just read? Check out my Webcomic and Fantasy Fiction projects!

10 thoughts on “Q&A: Mapping Your World

  1. This is actually really helpful – mapping an area out is something I’ve always had problems with. Though mine stem more from “Does it make sence to have caves here?” or “What exactly is in between forests and grasslands?” There is also “Do forests and mountains need hills in between? And if so, then what marks the end of the forest and the start of the hills, or the end of the hills and the start of the mountains?” I remember having alot of problems trying to map out my world of Tuore… Mostly because of the reasons I stated above. I suppose I’m a bit too exact sometimes. That, and how I’ve never been anywhere, or looked at a map closely, (except for maybe the Eragon ones). I’m still not entirely convinced that ether of my maps make any sence. Maybe I should stick to more normal areas….


  2. Eeee! Thank you! This helped a lot. And so did the other article. (I liked what she said about ‘why are there borders?’) The point about travelling times will help a ton, as I never really thought about “how fast does a horse travel, anyway? Or a dragon?” And I have a few travel scenes that will state distances based on these speeds, approximately.
    About characters learning about the land as they travel through it, well, I came up with a couple ideas today… one was that I could go on a ‘walking tour’ with my people and explore the world kind of like Guild Wars, working outward from cities and things and filling in important things like fields and towns. (how much food does a city need, anyway? Another thing to think about!) It would be a sort of work of fiction that is vastly too boring to publish, unless people really want to hear Gullac whining for hours on end, but it will show me some spots in exquisite detail. Or maybe doing increasingly close-in bird’s eye views. Doing my own Google Earth! Probably too much work. ^_^
    But I think I’ll start with the travel speed/distance and the capital city things. Thanks! You’ve given me a place to start and the sense that it’s easier than I thought it was.

    @Maracate: Um, I don’t know how it is in your world, but in the places that I’ve visited (few, admittedly) I think the forest goes right over the hills and up the mountains. It’s kind of gradual, but the mountains are pretty definite. Caves, I think, can go pretty much anywhere there is rock.
    Try Google Earth and going to random spots! I dunno, that just sounded like a good idea. I met someone from Pennsylvania on the internet the other day, so I looked it up, and it has all these weird parallel hills or something. I guess they’re part of the Appalachians, but… they look weeeeiiiird. : P
    .-= Illinia´s last blog ..The Totally Not-Canon Adventures of Flairé: Flairé Never Shuts Up =-.


    1. Actualy, they’re quite normal. Most mountain regions are like that, since they’re created by continents crashing into eachother.

      The remarkable part is that they’re so visible on google earth. It’s as if nothing (except for flattening) has disrupted the pattern since they were formed some 300 million years ago. Okay, maybe they are weird… I’ll ask my teachers this afternoon.


  3. Hmm. Maps. I really should get around to making one by now. In all honesty I have the general areas all in my brain, I just haven’t written anything down. “Hmm. One country blob goes here… one goes here… maybe some mountains here… need mountains here… uh… Maybe this country should be smaller, but maybe on a peninsula, kinda like Italy, but smaller.”

    That’s me at the moment. Yeah.

    And Illinia, I commented as a response! And I think these threads are ramble proof… they survived so far anyway! And I was involved.


      1. Yup, exactly. And a lot of the story (though not most of it) involves those country blobs trying to get bigger by swallowing others, then maybe collapsing, and sometimes just dying without being consumed by another blob.

        Maybe the best way of thinking about countries is considering all of them as giant amoebas. Cell theory kind of works there too actually… see, cells can’t get too big. If they do; they either pop, starve, or suffocate in their own waste products. Just like countries. Hmm.


  4. Map-making is the one kind of drawing I actually do! I can’t say I have much of a method… just kind of draw a big blob for a continent and then just go crazy sticking stuff in it, I guess. I try to make it make sense in terms of geography and meteorology and such, but I figure, if it makes sense to me but is actually wrong, most people will think it makes sense even though it’s wrong. It helps that, on Draezoln, if something actually doesn’t make sense, I can just blame it on Jivenesh.


    1. More updates from Illinia: Now that it’s NaNoWriMo and I’m actually writing book 2 of my series, the map has proved invaluable. I know where stuff is and things are starting to build significance.
      But… since I still don’t know how big anything is, the length of time to get from A to B depends on who is travelling that route. : P Hopefully I’ll fix that in time for the rewrite!
      .-= Illinia´s last blog ..Plot and Music and Drawing- Oh My! =-.


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