You know how we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover? How about judging it by its map? I love a book with a map, and happily for me, maps are plentiful in the genre I enjoy most: fantasy.
“I wisely started with a map and made the story fit… the other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities.”
— J. R. R. Tolkien
In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy TravelThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel, Diana Wynne Jone’s hilarious parody of fantasy literature, she says that if you’re on a quest you must expect to visit every single place marked on the map.
But of course!
Maps are not only wonderful for readers, they’re helpful for authors too. I’m working on a rewrite of my MG fantasy adventure novel and I was having a bit of trouble figuring out how long it would take my protagonists to walk from point A to point B. I had a hand-sketched map, but wanted to make a prettier one in Photoshop. My first efforts were a bit disastrous, but after falling down a veritable rabbit hole of map-making research, I made a much better one. I can’t stop gazing at it!
For example, though I had a rough idea of where my kingdom borders were, plotting them out on the map helped me see exactly where my border town would lie, and where I needed to add The Fork (an Inn):
And what a huge help for calculating distances! A year or two ago, I read a new middle-grade novel that was really well done, except for the fact that it jumped all over the author’s world. It seemed like the characters could leap between kingdoms in mere minutes while the evil pirates were taking eons to breach one of the walls. The lack of travel planning hurt the story a bit (even though its target audience probably wouldn’t notice), so I wanted to make sure the journey my characters were taking felt realistic to the reader. Plotting out their journey was extremely helpful; it helped me see several flaws in my writing right away.
My world isn’t exactly to scale, but this visual helped me sort out a handful of flaws in my writing right away. I discovered I had my protagonists making a 20+ mile journey on foot in just a couple of hours. Whoops!
Seeing everything laid out on the map also helped me figure out where to put a few places. The academy, for instance, is located up by Merlin’s Fjord in the upper left hand corner (hard to see at this size). Whenever I’d write about the academy prior to making the map I would leave blanks when describing where it was or how to get there because I just couldn’t picture where it should be. Once I created the map, I knew right where it needed to be located. Like magic!
Want to make your own fantasy map? It’s not as hard as it looks, especially if you’re already familiar with Photoshop. Here are the tutorials and resources I used (I hand drew some of my elements).
Fantasy Map Making Resources
- Fantasy Map Tutorial on Deviant Art
- Fantasy Map Tutorial on Instructables (this one is easier to follow, the cloud rendering is great for making continents! I assembled a whole bunch of pieces to make mine.)
- Tips for making better fantasy maps – best tip, study real maps and look at the geography. I made my rivers flowing downward from the mountain regions or in from the sea as this is how rivers would function in the real world.
- Drawing forests tutorial
- Map brushes
- More mountain brushes
- Sketchy Cartography Brushes
- Cloud brushes
- I swiped my heraldry coat of arms from this guy — if my book is ever published I’ll need to recreate those with original artwork.
- Cartography brushes
- Map pack brushes
There are lots more resources, try searching map making brushes on Deviant Art. I also found some brushes on the cartographer’s guild forum. And I spent hours drooling over all the pretty fantasy maps I could find on Deviant Art and especially Max’s Maps. Such a beautiful art!
FYI: It took me two and a half days to make my map. The first day, I made my first try, which was totally fun but had some geographical problems. My current map took me another day to complete (when I should have been writing, but this is research and world building, so it totally counts!) and then I spent another half day gazing at it, adding kingdom borders, renaming some things, and adding in those ‘floating’ areas I didn’t have a solid place for in my head. Even if you just draw your map out on paper, it’s a terrific exercise. I highly recommend it!
p.s. Fun fact: J.R.R. Tolkein’s famous map of Middle Earth up top was drawn by his son Christopher! Tolkien drew his own maps for The Hobbit as Christopher was too young to help at that point.
p.p.s. Here’s an index of fantasy maps from books, what a collection!
And so it begins.
I always figured I’d set up an author website for myself once I was, well, an author. As I am yet unpublished (haven’t even tried submitting anything), I can’t call myself an author yet, but I am coming ’round to admitting — at least to myself — that I am a writer.
I know, I know. In this world where everyone and their dog is a blogger, there probably aren’t many people left who aren’t calling themselves writers. But for me it was a big step. It’s probably about time. I’ve been writing for decades at this point.
So (deep breath) here I am. I’m a writer.
Just another writer in a teeming sea of hopeful would-be authors, but let’s not go down that dark and dreary path of potential failure. Today, I hope. Today I admit to myself that this unceasing drive to write is not going to go away. I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to make good art.