That School of Holy Map-Making


A boffer would have been handy the other day to hit myself in the head with. (Why do we punish ourselves for having just solved the problem?)

One of my big projects had been hanging fire because I had to make a continental-scale map to lay out the states and climate and the military campaigns.

Now, let me say that if your story is about a couple of wandering rogues, you can lay out a map in half an hour — I’ve done it on lined paper during a lecture class. As soon as you bring in military campaigns, you are looking at days of work because you have to either decide on the terrain and make the war fit it, or you have to work out the strategy in detail and make the map suit.

But, whoa, there — why are we laying out maps in any case?

Because someone told us we had to.

Because someone said that without one we will have the city north of the river in this story or chapter and south of it in another.

No, we won’t.

We will write down in our gazetteer (as I call such a file of world-building) “City lies north of the river, west of the deep river canyons, and is eight days of horseback travel from the forest village.” There is now no reason for you ever to get the city south of the river.

Think about it, folks. Do you have to paint an imagined portrait in order to remember the colour of your lead character’s hair or skin? No, you just write it down in the character files. Ditto the red-headed, blue-eyed cabbie with the Scottish accent.

So why, other than parroting, is everyone telling us that the first step in world-building is to draw a map?

For one problem, then the map drives the stories, rather than the stories creating the map. That seems exceedingly backward. If you make a continental map, publish it with a novel about one city, publish it with a novel about one island, and then, whoops, your idea for novel #3 needs a mountain range with few passes where you have river plains — you’re screwed, glued, and tattooed. You have to change your plot to fit the map that so many people have already seen.

This is just wrong.

For another, everyone else does it so we have to do it, too. Do you hear a mother saying, “If everyone else jumps off the cliff, do you have to do it, too?” Will no one will believe this is an invented-world story if you don’t have a map at the front?

This is especially onerous for authors who are great writers but lousy at drawing maps. The one you use for your own planning is a bunch of circles and X’s and wiggles but it looks more like a football playbook than a map anyone else could understand.

Is it really necessary to get at least a B in Cartography class to world-build? That’s like demanding you be able to paint realistic character portraits in order to write about characters. It’s irrelevant to our art, which is writing, folks. We do things with words, not pictures.

The Fixes

You know me by now: I don’t bring up problems if I don’t have suggestions for fixes.

Just keep your gazetteer. If it starts getting too complicated, lay out a map with dots and crosses and blue lines for rivers. Do not draw anything you have not mentioned. Do not invent places you have not used yet.

Do not give this to readers. Let them just read your story and not start nit-picking about if it matches some map or not. They are supposed to trust the author. Let them get used to trusting and going along with the story, rather than jumping out of the willing suspension of disbelief to go check the map.

Of course, in that case you have to describe where people are from or are going and not just leave it to the map. As a reader, I hate having to keep flipping back to the map and then trying to find the name on it. Talk about interrupting the flow of the story! I had far rather have a short form of a gazetteer. It’s easier to find names on it.

I have read many, many novels outside of fantasy where no one gives you a map. The main ones who do are mystery writers, who will give you floor plans and room layouts, I guess so you can see they’re not cheating, and those writing histfi, especially in ancient settings. But it’s not required, the way people act in created-world fantasies (and science fiction).

If you (or your editor) feel you simply must give a map or die, give one only of the smallest area you can. Don’t give that continental map if all the story is in one city or on one island. Give just the city, just the island.

Also, you don’t have to draw maps. You can steal them.

Witness the map of just a city, in this case Shexnutal, the setting of A Vision for Thieves (#2 in my stalled series). It’s so detailed that it has a panorama at the bottom! It’s so detailed in street layouts that I can zoom down to the particular neighborhood of most of the action and draw in individual buildings if I please.

My work map of Shexnutal, a city in the series, The Legend of the Seven Storms.

My work map of Shexnutal, a city in the series, The Legend of the Seven Storms.

Close-up of the most important neighborhood in the tale.

Close-up of the most important neighborhood in the tale.

This is an 1851 map of Istanbul, flipped horizontally, renamed, and getting any other changes I require. I needed two rivers, a capitol city, a palace, and there they were. No modern person is going to draw a map this complicated by hand, but back then it was the norm.

If I were actually publishing it, I would remove the panorama, or change the water-craft to not be so distinctively Eastern. I might fold areas to change angles, or insert parts of other locales — but I can’t see bothering to when I’ve just made a stand against publishing maps. If I did, how many people are going to recognize the area from nearly two centuries ago? If worst came to worst, I could use tracing paper or carbon paper and make a simplified version not one person in ten thousand would catch — and I’ll gladly receive five gotcha letters to have fifty thousand readers. For those five — it’s our in-joke. As it is with you.

Why should this be somehow illegitimate or improper or unsporting? I’m a writer, not a city planner. Every hour spent figuring out streets is an hour less to write.

On my website are articles on how to lay out proper geography, but you don’t have to. Especially you don’t have to worry about how to lay out mountain valleys if you just take a snippet of the Alps or Rockies and flip and angle them. The people who live there won’t recognize them with the names changed.

It pays to find physical maps without the modern roads and cities in your way: less writing to remove. Removing the labels has to be the most grueling part. Rubber stamps and copy&paste for hours. Yes, still hours, but one does have hours of being too burnt to write but able to do this. It’s a better activity to stay busy while thinking about the book than playing solitaire is. If you have a public-domain map to start with, it’s perfectly publishable.

You can find maps for your imaginary worlds on the web. I have a set here from some old occult history book (theosophical?) showing earlier stages of the world, with Lemuria and Atlantis, and everything else morphed out of shape. The closer we get to the modern age, the more recognizable it becomes. The older ones, though, could be anywhere.

There is something to be said for blobbing around with finger-paints when you need a world map. And full world maps are what you usually get. People don’t often imagine down at the city level, and if they did, they often build the cities kind of wacky (yes, studied ancient and medieval city planning for world-building).

Do respect others’ copyrights. If someone has been inventing worlds, they had better have published them before 1923 or have been dead 75 years or so, for you to make free with them, that sort of thing.

Let’s say you follow this link to Planetocopia and find the perfect land layout for what you have already somewhat described. You might write the creator, Chris Wayan, asking to use his maps (which are largely photos of the globes he lays out and paints). Maybe he’d just like a link back from your site and all book copies to his site. Maybe he’d like a piece of your action. That’s all something you have to work out in writing in advance before you can publish his maps, even if you have relabeled or modified them. But …

If you don’t publish maps, if you just describe what you need and not more, if you just use these for yourself to make a good-looking way to locate yourself (a pretty map can be a morale lift), just do it.

Equally, you can’t use the map from an extant novel: no publisher will let you. But for your own use you can rotate it upside down, flip a few strings of islands, and you are good to go for your own reference. (If you need islands, I recommend kit-bashing the archipelagos of Southeast Asia. Change scale on the islands, too.)

Committing Great Sins

It’s really simple, now that I have the solution. I throw off the trammels of obligatory map-making.

I just write the damned things.

Most importantly, I keep a detailed gazetteer of references to distance, travel time, location. When I’m mainly finished (most of a rough draft for all the books), I can build maps off what the stories give me (one already gave me a hidden pass). I make it all look geologically sensible. Then, I go back through the books and adjust them to fit the map. Where the story is more important, I revise the map. What is Photoshop for? Back and forth I shall go in revisions of words and maps, and it will work to suit my series plot and individual scenes.

The maps won’t weigh me down while I work. Oh, I’ll still probably build local maps if I need them, but I assure you that while I have Shexnutal, I can’t see bothering to build Tazliakë’s little home village.

Maybe you’ll get to see my other maps, and maybe you won’t. It doesn’t matter. Just read the books and enjoy.

2 responses »

  1. I’m not sure I’d be ever able to create an entire world, but I made maps for my story, one for the three floors of the speakeasy and one for my main character’s apartment. I did this on draft three. You think it’s silly? Uhm… maybe, but it clarified my visuals of the places so much. When I rewrote those scenes I didn’t have to wonder what my characters would see and how would they moved, becuause I knew exactly.
    And hey, I used the trial of a very cool program that gave me such professional looking maps. And no, I’m never going to publish them 😉

    • Building layouts? There’s a reason I used to buy Dover Publications of old floor plans, from New York apartments to 1860s homes, and I still collect a mort of those things from online sources. Historically, trying to figure where they would put the bathroom or kitchen by what we know of modern layout is usually all wrong (19th C. American houses often used to have the kitchen and dining room in the basement). Then, too, the period plans will include things we never thought of, from doors hidden as bookcases to sleeping porches.

      That’s not a map, especially not one of those classical “you must start with an invented map of the countries all round about” sort of maps. Some people just can’t get going until they have a floor plan of the apartment/house/hotel to visualize people in, but most hunt it up as they go along. It’s definitely good to have by first revision.

      It’s like if you’re in the real world, I do advise having some good maps before you even start, because you don’t want to plot based on something that can’t be where you need. It’s very central to my 50 Books concept of researching historical fiction efficiently. (

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