Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Map-Making 101: Drawing the Map

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

This past weekend I drove out to Utah Valley University, which is about an hour south of Salt Lake City, and presented two classes at the fifth annual Teen Author Boot Camp. I was so impressed with this event! Some 670 teenagers attended. It was a packed, energetic, house!

I presented a class called Map-Making 101. Here is Part One of the class in blog-post form.

No matter what genre you're working on, sketching a map is a great way to brainstorm. Today I'm going to talk about making a map for your story, how to come up with the layout, the items on said map, and how to name everything.

Cartography is the study and practice of making maps with the intent of effectively communicating information. Have you ever been confused by a map in the front of a book? I have. As novelists, we want to avoid that. Our maps should aid the telling of that story, not confuse our readers. 

One of the many objectives of cartography is to have an agenda or a purpose for your map. Not all maps seek to communicate the same information. For us novelists, just like characters and scenes have a purpose in our stories, our maps should also have a purpose. This purpose will keep us from trying to do too much with a map and potentially confusing or overwhelming our readers with information they don't need.

Do you want the map to:

show everything? The entire land, continent, planet? Or perhaps just the "known land" in an ancient world that hasn't done much exploring. 

For my map of Er'Rets, I wanted to show the entire known land, which was a single continent and a few islands. I also wanted to show the forests, mountains, cities, rivers, lakes, roads, the Gadowl Wall, the Reshon Gates, and the Darkness that was growing across the land.

show points of a journey? If the story is a traveling type of story in which the characters journey from one place to another, you might want to show those locations on your map. The map in The Hobbit is a great example of this purpose.

show the physical attributes of the land? Trees, roads, rivers, lakes, mountains, coastlines, etc. On my map of the Five Realms in King's Folly, I had an unusual terrain, so I included a key with my map that showed the cliffs to designate high elevation, canyons, and cracks; dotted lines to show underground rivers, shaded areas to depict The Gray, a symbol for bridges, and numbers for altars. 

show the layout of a building? In Replication, Martyr drew a map of the Jason Farms cloning facility.

show political borders? The walls enclosing The Safe Lands were very important to my storyworld for that series. I also wanted to show the cities outside the walls.

show key locations? I paid an artist to draw this map of Moscow for The New Recruit because I only wanted the shape of the city. That way the map could have letters and numbers to list the locations my characters went in the story, and the map wouldn't be cluttered up with irrelevant information.

help you write? One of the best reasons to draw a map isn't to put it in the front of the book but to help you write your story. Drawing a map can make it much easier to describe places or write travel scenes. Here is a sketch I drew of Sitna Manor from By Darkness Hid. This is the place Achan grew up, so I really wanted to know this place well.

In regard to map design, also try to keep things as simple as possible. Only include things that are relevant to your story. Make everything legible and easy for the reader to understand. And, as always when working on anything related to worldbuilding, don't forget to write the book! Map-making can easily suck you into storyworld builder's disease.

Once you've made your choice as to what type of map you're making and the purpose(s) you want it to accomplish, you're ready to start drawing. 

The Shape/Layout of the Map- It's time to draw the shape of your map. Some people really struggle with this. Others, not at all. To start, it doesn't matter all that much. You can always change things later. First decide if you want to show coastlines or put your map into a frame in which the land continues on outside the border. If you need help with shapes, check this out. Here is the map of the Six Duchies from Robin Hobb's Farseer books. 

Here is that same map upside down. Notice anything familiar?

It looks a lot like Alaska, doesn't it? It's not exactly Alaska, and I have no idea if this was done on purpose or not. But using an atlas to look for interesting land shapes can be a great help. 

If you're writing an alternate history story or something that takes place in the future on earth, you can use real maps as a starting point. That's what I did with my Safe Lands map. I drew the map over top of the ski resort map for Crested Butte, Colorado. Brandon Sanderson's map of the American Isles from The Rithmatist is a great example of an alternate history map.

Keep in mind, map-making helps your worldbuilding, and worldbuilding shapes your map. As you draw, be thinking about the following:

Geography and Environment- What does this world look like? Does your planet have multiple biomes like earth? We have five: aquatic, desert, forest, grasslands, and tundra. What’s the landscape like? Do you need trees? How about mountains, deserts, forests, lakes, rivers, bays, oceans, etc. Remember, water flows downhill toward larger bodies of water and eventually into the ocean. How is the weather in your land? Does it affect your map? Are there habitable zones or places too dangerous to go? If so, perhaps those need to be marked.

Culture, Religion, Economics, and Population- How many people live per square mile/kilometer/league/etc?  Research comparible cities to get a good idea so you know how close your cities should be to one another and how many you should have. Check out this post called Medieval Demographics Made Easy to learn more about this topic. Remember, the more food and water your land has available, the higher the population. Deserts don't support as many people as jungles do.

Cities and Towns- We talked about size and number, but what other interesting attributes might go on a map? City walls, perhaps. Think of Zion, the underground city from The Matrix; Lothlorian, the city in the trees from The Lord of the Rings; or Knowhere from Guardians of the Galaxy, which is the city inside the severed celestial head. Is there an interesting city in your world? Why not try and put at least one in your story?

Methods of Travel- Know what level of technology your world has. If you are writing a pre-steam engine society, people travel on roads or rivers. Roads would be windy, curving around mountains and rivers, not straight like freeways. During the Western Expansion of the United States, the Toledo War was fought between Ohio and Michigan over the port city of Toledo. The Great Lakes provided a waterway to the Atlantic Ocean, and everyone knew how valuable that was. Take that into consideration when you create borders for different countries in your world. Also, you really only need to include a legend if your characters are traveling great distances. 

Creatures- Are there any beasties or bugs that are so frightening that people won't go near the land they live on? If such a thing is applicable to your story, it should go on your map.

Boundaries- Do you have walls, gates, or borders in your world? Think about the Berlin Wall that once separated East and West Germany or the No Touching Zone between the USA and Canada. 

History –Tolkien wrote a very complex history of his world. A great mapped example from that history is Osgiliath, a city that was once the capital of Gondor and is now in ruins. Is there anything that's a part of your world's history that could be added to your map?

Magic- Is there magic in your story, and if so, does it affect your map? In King's Folly, magic comes from a tuberous root that is dug up. Cities tend to be located where that root grows. In By Darkness Hid, the Darkness is a magical curse. Are there portals in your story? Magic schools? Think through your magic to see if any aspect of it can be included on your map.

Landmarks and Buildings- There are lots of landmarks on the map inside the front of the book The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Think of Rabbit’s House, the 100 Acre Wood, Pooh's Trap for Heffalumps, etc. Are there important locations in your story? Perhaps castles, gates, abandoned cabins, altars, bridges, monuments, etc.

I tend to start a map by sketching it out on tracing paper. Once I'm happy with it, I'll trace over the pencil with a Sharpie. I usually draw one cluster of trees, mountains, or anything else I need a lot of. Then I scan the map and open it in Photoshop. I clean it up and copy and paste the trees, mountains, etc until I have as many as I want. The last thing I do is add my dots and titles. I wrote a blog post a while back in which I showed you the evolution of my latest fantasy map. Click here to see that post.

There are many programs you can buy to help you draw maps easier than using Photoshop or doing it by hand. Here is a short list:

Fractal Terrains Pro is a random world generator made by ProFantasy. Click a button and a world appears. Don't like what you see? Click again. It's that simple.

Campaign Cartographer is handy once you've created your world in Fractal Terrains. Here you decorate your map with symbols, rivers, roads, and text. is a forum for map enthusiasts. On this site is a tutorial on how to use GIMP to create a map. GIMP is a free Photoshop-like program. Click here to download the GIMP software. And click here to visit the tutorial page.

AutoREALM is a vector based drawing software designed for RPGs.

Astrosynthesis 2.0 is a 3D mapping utility for space, galaxies, and local planetary systems.

FractalMapper 8.0 is a product that combines what Campaign Cartographer and Fractal Terrains do for ProFantasy.

Tutorials- There are tutorials for everything these days. Google "How to make a map with _____" and name the program, and you will find help.

Deviant Art is a wonderful site to find inspiration. Go there and do a search for maps. There are so many on that site, it's amazing! Don’t copy other people’s maps, but get inspired. Let your ideas flow.

We're not done yet! Stay tuned. Two weeks from now comes Map-Making 201: Naming Places.

Have you spent much time making maps? Share any tips you have in the comments below.


  1. This is really neat, Mrs. Williamson! One of my favorite parts of brainstorming is drawing out blueprints of building interiors.

    By the way--I like the way the Safe Lands map is 3D-ish. :)

    1. Thanks, Linea. I love drawing floor plans too. :-)

  2. Thanks for the wonderful post! I've always loved making maps, especially my own fantasy worlds. My favourite thing to do when creating maps is putting my cities in interesting places. In my current WIP an entire city exists in ancient burrows of extinct beasts, and another covers a good deal of a mountain. Setting is extremely important in stories, and I love playing with locations, creating new animals and plants, and figuring out how the environment affects the people groups living there. I can't wait for the next post!

    1. That sounds awesome, Melissa! Good work!

  3. I'm not a fan of map-making but I often end up having to do it anyway just so I know the basics of where places are . . . otherwise journeys get messy. Usually my maps are just detailed enough to tell me the basics of where countries and major landforms (rivers, mountains, canyons, deserts, etc.) are. They also tend to all be the same oval/egg shape with a few slight changes . . . I need to work on that.

    1. Ha ha. Well, if they're just for you, the egg-shape doesn't matter. I find sketching layouts of cities and buildings super helpful if I'm going to have a lot of scenes in those places.

  4. I just realized that this is probably something I am going to need to do with my MS at some point. Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. This was an amazing class, Mrs. Williamson! It was absolutely my favorite! :3 Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Bianca! I'm glad you liked it. :-)

  6. Ever since I was eight, I've been drawing maps. It's something I hold quite close to my heart. Drawing maps of my stories and books was always the sort of stuff I did in down time :). Great stuff.

    1. That's cool, Jonathan. What a great hobby that tied in nicely with your second great hobby of writing stories! ;-)

  7. I sometimes just do a map for my own benefit (figuring I'd go back and make the map all cool later if I needed it to go with my story), but I'm not very good at that sort of thing. Always end up finding annoying places on the map that look like faces of monsters :P My older brother was always making cool maps growing up. I don't know how he did them, but they just all looked awesome...

    1. There have been times when I never went back and cool-ified my map. It was just for me too. Maybe you should hire your brother! Or bribe him to make you some maps.

  8. This is so perfect for me right now. xD I'm in the middle of trying to make a map for a new idea I have. And that one that's basically Alaska turned upside down?! GENIUS. I've been reading Game of Thrones and I noticed the map looks a lot like Britain, just adapted a bit, same with the Ranger's Apprentice world too! *clicks all the links* Thanks for this, Jill!

  9. There is this one series I am reading that has an atlas full of maps of a place called the Archipelago of Dreams which is basically a place where all stories are real. The atlas is called the Imaginarum Geographica and it was made by a person called the Cartographer of Lost Places. Kind of funny don't you think?