A map adds a wonderful dimension to a fantasy book. It inspires curiosity, helps you visualize your world, and transports the viewer/reader to another world without the need for text. Maps immerse the reader in the author’s imagination and add an extra layer of plausibility and depth.
Maps consist of elements that convey information to the viewer. Rivers, mountains, cities, borders between nations, roads, etc. The key to a successful map is having a strong idea of your world. Is it a water world? Is it an arid world? Are the continents close or far apart?
In this blog post, I’ll start by tackling the basics of cartography, and provide links to online mapping tools and articles which I found useful.
The World of Laremlis
Below are the maps I created. This map began as a hand-drawn map which I then painstakingly digitized and designed in Adobe Photoshop.
The map didn’t always look this cool, however. It began as a humble sketch. I then went to the web and began studying realistic coastlines and land masses and redid the edges to look like a real map. I also wanted the continents to fit into one solid landmass similar to Pangea (Supercontinent that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras on earth). I’m fascinated by plate tectonics and this was important to me, but feel free to disregard this idea in your own creations.
You don’t need a fancy design program to create a great map. In fact, some of the best maps on earth were done by hand. What you will need is some good pencils, a pencil sharpener, and a really good eraser. The eraser is really the key here so you don’t leave behind nasty smudges. For paper, I’d recommend something other than printer paper, because it will stand up to edits. The paper in most drawing journals is pretty good and will serve you well. If you’re planning on scanning the map later, the whiter and smoother the substrate, the easier it will be to drop the background in Photoshop or similar program. I bought the set of pencils shown here for $8 on Amazon and they’ve worked out great.
Define Landmasses, Coastlines, & Islands
Start by drawing out the general shape of your world and figure out the scope. Do you want to show the entire world or just a section where the story is based? Once you make this decision, grab some pencils and paper and get to work.
Coastlines are almost always jagged, never smooth. Once you define your basic shapes, draw a bunch of jagged lines outside general outline until you end up with something that resembles a real map. See the image below.
TIP: Go light with your pencil lines so you can erase easily once you draw in the coastline.
In this example, I’m not going crazy with islands, but you certainly can. Add a smattering of little islands bordering your landmasses or way out into the ocean for added interest. Islands are often grouped together in bunches of irregular shapes, forming chains that stretch between continental masses. Experiment with shapes and sizes, and have fun. Island peoples are usually a colorful bunch.
Inlets and bays make for great sheltered harbors and make your coastline unique. As you can see I cut into my sketch (on the left) and created some half bowl shapes along my coastline. Bays can be quite irregular, some are on the inside of peninsulas, and can be very jagged.
TIP: Be sure to erase the original sketch lines as you form your new coastlines. A good eraser is invaluable during this process. The last thing you want is to leave dark smudges on your page.
Once you have solidified your coastlines, go over them with a darker pencil line so you have a strong perimeter without any breaks. If you scan the picture in later, breaks in the perimeter will make selecting areas difficult.
Add Rivers and Lakes
A river is a natural watercourse, usually freshwater, flowing towards an ocean, sea, lake or another river. In some cases, a river flows into the ground and becomes dry at the end of its course without reaching another body of water, but this is the exception. Rivers also create deltas as they empty into the ocean. Deltas tend to be swampy watersheds so keep that in mind when considering the area. Add rivers to your map in the same manner you did the coastline. Don’t use overly straight lines or smooth lines as rivers don’t usually look that way as seen from above. Keep in mind that water always takes the path of least resistance, so don’t draw a river going over a hill. You get the idea.
Add Terrain Features
Alright, now for the fun part; mountains, trees, hills, swamps, desserts, you name it. Tall mountains and rugged foothills dominate many fantasy maps but don’t feel obligated to go in that direction. A desert world (think Dune) is just as compelling as a more traditional Europe-centric world such as Westeros. Mountains add a sense of vastness and are a natural boundary which may form a separation between nations, etc. Forests add instant mystery and can serve as hideouts or obstacles. You can either represent these areas as dense groupings of individual trees or outcroppings within rolling hills, meadows, etc. Forests are often located at the foot of the mountains where the trees benefit from snowmelt.
Mountainous terrain can inhibit trade and the building of roads, so think about the placement of your mountains carefully. In our world, they often serve as natural barriers between nations and are used to defend against invasions. If you look at the city of A’diel, it’s tucked on an inland lake with a natural harbor and surrounded by mountains. This geographic location guarantees the people of A’diel both peace and prosperity.
When drawing mountain ranges begin with a light “S’ style line and build from there. Place the lines lightly on your map where you think the mountains might go, then place the highest peak on the line, and work down from there. Around the mountains, draw rugged hills to show a decrease in elevation. The level of detail you add will be unique to your map.
For dense forests, you want to mark the general forest area in a loose outline, then add trees. General leaf shapes work well for pines and flower shapes for oaks and other types of vegetation. A map’s basic purpose is to convey information so whatever wooded area design you come up with it, stick with it. One forest might be tall skinny pines and another comprised of massive oaks. Just don’t mix and match in the same area or it will look messy.
Once you have sketched out the major groupings, add scattered areas of woods on the periphery. Forests gradually decline into fields and shrubs so adding some lone trees here and there or just a few trees will make the map more realistic.
Herwin Wielink, fantasy cartographer extraordinaire has amazing tutorials on his website which walk you through creating some awesome icons. Below is one of his tree samples where you can see different foliage options. I encourage you to stop by his site and poke around the various tutorials. Very useful.
There are a number of amazing map making articles on the web as well as tools which will make your life a whole lot easier.
I do hope you have found this useful. Part II will include the addition of cities, other types of terrain, and coloring. Cheers.