World-Building (Map-Making Part 1)

February 28, 2011 By: Christopher D. Eldridge Category: Description & Setting, Technology, World-Building, Writing Craft

The Various Stages of My World – CLICK TO ENLARGE IMAGES

Until you put your world on paper or on file, it is no more than a figment of your imagination, no matter how well-realized that figment may be. Creating a map of your world is one of the first steps you should take in world-building. In fact, I believe it is a must. Not only then does your world become tangible, and perhaps something you can show off to others, but it also becomes part of a chain reaction in which your map and story feed off of one another.

Years ago, I first sketched my world on two 8.5” x 11” sheets of paper. They weren’t much more than penciled landmasses with names for cities and a few sketches of forests, mountains, rivers and lakes. I put the two sheets of paper together side by side, and there was my first world. It wasn’t much of one, but it was a start.

A few years later, I took my sheets of paper and transferred them over to a large posterboard. I added some features, changed some names, did a few more sketches, then drew some empire lines. But it still lacked much semblance of a real world. The truth was, I drew about as well as a five year old, plus I hadn’t bothered to do much research on world-building.

This is when I realized what I was doing wrong. I created my world in my stories purely from my imagination. I didn’t pay much attention to how biomes are distributed in a real world. I didn’t think about how major cities needed to be located near a river or lake for drinking water and how that water may have gotten there. I didn’t think about the fact that if I have a city of a million people or more, in a society with technology similar to medieval Europe, where these citizens would get their food.

You see, my maps were constructed purely from the words on the page, from the stories I’d already written. Basically if I hadn’t mentioned something in my book it wasn’t on my map.

When I finally got around to making a realistic, fully realized map of my world, I had to go back and make tons of changes in my story to fix all of the problems I hadn’t bothered to think about.

So start creating your map as soon as you start writing your novel. Because even if you haven’t started world-building for your stories, or for that matter writing them, making a map will work wonders for creating your world and the setting for your stories to take place in. It’ll force you to think about what you want in your world and where everything should go. You’ll be able to solve any problems with where your cities, biomes, and natural features (like lakes and rivers) are all located in relation to each other. In addition, you’ll be able to accurately judge travel times in your story because you’ll have the distances right in front of you on your map. Not to mention places for your protagonist to go to or exotic places to speak of. Your story will blossom, it will feel real, and it will be accurate.

Check back for Part 2.


12 Comments to “World-Building (Map-Making Part 1)”

  1. Laura Chick says:

    This idea of creating a map to better show your world is just so brilliant, so unique. Why have I never heard of this idea before?
    I love it! A map is just such a great way to help the reader get a better grip on your amazing fantasy world. And it encourages all of us to think about creating a map for our own stories, our own books! The idea of a map would work for both fiction and non-fiction if you really think about it! And I love that you gave us a “sample” of your maps, where we get to see the evolution of your artist talents! I hope you frame those original-maps in your home, they will be worth millions someday when your book and movie deal come out!!! HA! That little map from 9th grade is just ADOREABLE, and shows the beginning stages of your brilliance.
    Thanks for the map concept in creative writing. I think I will start working on my own map right now!!!! Keep up the great work!

  2. To me, your “ninth-grade” map is the most potent representation of your calling, your destiny to be a writer. The maturity level of Zenita, for your age then, is astonishing.

    Most ninth-graders aren’t drawing pictures of entire fantasy worlds of their own creation. In ninth grade, I was drawing pictures of hot-rodded cars, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that even those were high art compared to what many others were drawing in the ninth grade (ha ha)

    • Thanks, Daven. Having an avid sci-fi/fantasy fan such as yourself give me such kind and flattering compliments really makes me feel that destiny. It helps me to believe that I can make it. We writers need support from our friends, family, and colleagues. The business of being an author is a much darker and difficult then most people realize. So thanks for the support.

  3. I studied cartography in college and minored in geography, so you’re speaking my language. Even though my fantasy is set on earth, I still made myself a map to follow while I wrote it. Most of the big cities have been destroyed in my novel, and it helped to keep track of my character’s movements.

    I also love it when fantasy books come with maps. It helps to visualize the world I’m reading about. Good post!

    • Luanne, studying cartography and minoring in geography in college seems like a brilliant decision for someone who wants to write fantasy. Did you hand draw your map or use some kind of computer program? And by the way, I’d love to see the map of your world.

      Every fantasy book should have at least one map. It’s a tragedy if it doesn’t.

      • Christopher, it’s just a hand drawn map I scribbled for my own reference – nothing worth showing. But I think if I were writing an other-world fantasy it would be a blast to make a real map and have it published with the novel. I haven’t kept up with the technology, but I’ve seen some sites on-line where you can go and make multi-layered maps of fantasy worlds. Just one more fun part of the world-building.

        • Ah. Well, even so, hand drawn maps are nothing to scoff at. Even with today’s technology, some of the most beautiful maps I’ve seen were drawn by hand. And even though you’re map may be nothing more than some scribbles done for your own reference, it still would be cool to show people. After all, it’s part of your world-building, and at some point you’re rabid fans will go gaga over it.

          Check back tomorrow. I’m going to cover some of those sites and programs where you can easily build incredible maps. No artistic talent necessary. Only limitations are your imagination, your knowledge on world-building, and the time you want to commit to creating your map. Even with a fantasy story that takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, it may pique your interest.

          • For centuries, sailors navigated every sea on Earth with hand-illustrated maps.

            The great armies of Rome, Genghis Khan and countless others relied on hand-illustrated maps.

            Why stop there? The maps themselves became more accurate due to the first-hand accounts of explorers such as Lewis and Clark, who were carrying maps with the best information then available.

            The world as we know it today was built from the use of maps.

          • Well said. Maps may have advanced drastically since those early days, but they are still no less important today. In fact, the vast majority of us use maps. Only difference now is that we have our own navigator, usually a woman, who gives us precise (turn-by-turn) directions of where to go.

  4. Christopher’s advice is extremely wise. I’ve made many special trips to visit my novel’s settings before I started writing them. Before I wrote Chapter One, I walked from Bear Creek Park to Mullen High School, then onto Fort Logan, taking pictures all the while.

    I’ve been all over Colorado, visiting the locations in which my novel is set, and Google Earth can never substitute for the first-hand experience of hiking through a vast cattle ranch field, an isolated mountain trail or Colorado National Monument.

    That said, plotting the routes of your characters on Google Earth helps you keep an accurate time-line of events. Not to mention showing you what your readers will see when they Google Earth your book’s locations. You add value to the story when you describe features of your locations they can’t see on Google Earth.

    Even if you’re writing a fantasy set on another planet, it helps to visualize what it would be like if you were there.

    • Daven, for a story taking place in our world, visiting and taking pictures is a great idea. And using Google Earth is brilliant as it is an extremely accurate and detailed map of our world. Spending that kind of time visualizing your settings will make a huge difference in bringing truth and depth to the places in your novel.

      Some of my best fantastical settings and creatures are all inspirations from our own world. Some of the most remotes places on Earth–deep oceans, caves, cenotes, undisturbed tropical rain forests–have some of the strangest and most amazing plants and animals. Creatures more bizarre than fantasy.

      • Of course, the big “hook” concerning my book’s locations is that the locations I specified are accurate.

        The locations of the vampires’ properties are, of course, not specified. For instance, a hamburger restaurant run by two vampires is only described as being “on East Colfax”, which could mean any one of several dozen burger joints between Broadway and East Colfax’s endpoint at the I-70 intersection 13.2 miles eastward.

        Obsessive “Vampire Syndrome” fans will have to decide for themselves which restaurant I had in mind. All part of the fun >;^)


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