You’ve heard the joke: If there is a map on the front of the book, expect to be dragged to each and every location marked on it. A map has practically become a fantasy novel cliche.
That doesn’t minimize just how useful maps are to both readers and writers.
The fantasy I’m reading nowadays doesn’t have a map. Characters casually refer to countries, provinces and cities, and there is no handy visual reference to see how these places relate to each other. The result: I’m lost and disoriented in a world out of someone’s imagination. And that translates to a nagging discomfort that distracts me from the story itself.
The same holds true on the writer’s side as well, maybe even more so. A writer needs to be spatially oriented in her world, continent, country, village, castle keep or college campus, so she can plan her story and block her scenes accordingly. How long does it take to travel from Molemphis to Milemphos? Is there time for Anna and Di to argue about George’s intentions while they walk from their dorm building to their English class? What natural barriers lie between the warrior Thvor and the City of Rich Nubile Young Women? Can Palla escape out her bedroom window when assassins burst in from her dressing room, or is she caught between the bed and the entrance to the garderobe?
Okay, so now that you’re convinced your story needs a map (*wink*), how do you go about creating one?
Well, for one, you start by checking out real maps. You can find physical and political maps here. And the University of Texas Libraries site has tons of links and images of historical maps here (okay, I could get very lost happily following links on that one!).
You can also start your own collection of maps by hanging on to those free pamphlets you get when visiting attractions during your vacations. I’m jealously guarding the Mt. Desert Island map we brought home with us. Looking at the maps will give you an idea of what kinds of physical formations you can put on on your map. They’ll also give you a sense of naming conventions and (in city and village maps) of how human habitations are laid out (Where’s the mill? Where are the fields? Where would the castle keep be?).
Here are a few tips I’ve found useful when drawing maps:
* Pay attention to coastlines. Enjoy creating bays, inlets, coves, headlands, peninsulas and islands. I personally LOVE sand bars and land bridges.
* When drawing a map of a city, town or village, think long and hard about the reason the place came into existence. Was it the presence of mines, proximity to the river, a defensible position or the crossroads of major trade routes? Think about what the first buildings of the town would be and build the rest from there.
* Yes, we all make sure to put mountains, deserts, rivers and forests on our maps, but let’s not forget mesas and volcanoes and steppes and canyons. And by all means have castles and fortresses and towns, bu don’t forget mines and lighthouses and colleges.
All right, now you’re all gung-ho to draw your own fantasy map! Start here for a basic tutorial.
You can download fantasy mapmaking software AutoRealm for free.
And, if you’re stuck for story ideas, Holly Lisle shows you how to build a world around a map.
Do you draw maps for your stories? Any tips to share?