Fantasy World Mapping

Phantasgaronia, map, sketch, The Knight and the Hag, mapmaking, fantasy, world building, Scott Lynch, Kushiel

Let’s talk fantasy world mapping!

But first let’s talk where I am at my current work-in-progress.

It was with much elation and glee that I finished the first edit of my WIP last week. So psyched!

Naturally, I was also super excited to dive right back into the second round of edits, but no. I forced myself instead to step away for the rest of the week. Let the manuscript rest, I told myself. Take some time out. Go out. See people. Prep your April blog entries. Read some books (currently devouring Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children series. More on this in a future post). Go for a run. Eat some delicious food. In short, stay away from your novel for a little while so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.

I did manage to stay away from my WIP, but I couldn’t resist sorting through and compiling a glossary of character names, details, places, history, background settings, etc. that I could refer to in my second round of edits. I also hunted down pencil and paper to sketch out a rough map of the world my WIP was set in to ensure I was sending my characters in all the right directions in my book. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do and also it keeps me from driving myself crazy obsessing over my WIP and worrying that everything is going to look like shit when I come back to it.

Now let’s talk world mapping.

When I first started writing my story, I had a pretty good idea in my head of where everything was set out. But there’s a difference between mapping stuff out in your head and actually mapping out your fantasy world territory on paper, especially when you’re spatially challenged like me. In the excitement of my first draft, I knew I was sending my characters to all the different points of the compass without actually stopping to check if they were headed in the right direction because I just wanted to get the story down on paper and sweat the details later. Then with my first edit, I wanted to clean up all that atrocious writing and make sure my sentences actually said what they mean to say. Now I’m about to enter the second road of edits, where I want to further clean up my writing and also check over the little details to make sure everything is consistent and logical. Stuff like directions.

Naturally, when I first sat down to sketch out a rough map, I saw right away a heap of glaring inconsistencies with D&D – directions and destinations. I had places called ‘South So-and-So’ that were actually set in the north and a kingdom in the east was sitting in the west. Characters were saying, “Let’s head north” when they’re actually about to head west. Stuff like that.

Needless to say, my head is not a very spatially organized place to live in. Mapmakers, enter at your peril. Your compasses shall fail.

Luckily, I found I was able to rearrange most places with a quick mirror flip, and pretty soon I had everything in their proper place. But in the course of sketching a map, I also realized I was not the prodigy mapmaker I thought I was (what do you mean, I won’t be super talented at everything and be able to paint the Mona Lisa as soon as I picked up a paintbrush?!?). So I decided to go online and look at a few fantasy world maps to get an idea of where to start.

Fantasy mapmaking is a lot of fun. I mean, who does not have fun world building? Is that not one of the major reasons we fantasy writers love our genre?

It is also a lot harder than I thought it would be.

Among the first maps I referenced were the ones from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series. Because who is a fantasy fiction fan and not a fan of Kushiel?

Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel, Map, fantasy, fiction, world building

As you can see, it’s very much a medieval alt-universe of Europe (and various continents in later books). But that made me stop to think – just what shape continent did my characters live in? And so, though it wasn’t strictly necessary for me to go into that sort of detail for my story, I decided to sit down and think about the shape of the continent and where each of the 16 kingdoms in my world were located in relation to each other, what the basic topography is like, et cetera… and soon I found myself sketching a continent that started out life in the shape of a lion but perhaps might have been more of an overfed pug, and then I added a unicorn’s horn on (because it’s my fantasy world and I can.) I also ended up making a list of all the 16 countries on my little puglion continent plus a few details of what each kingdom was like. Like I said, none of this, mind you, was absolutely necessary for my story which is set in just two or three of the 16 kingdoms, but it’s nice to have that kind of background for reference. Plus, it’s given me more than a few ideas of where I’d like to take future stories. I also felt like I was getting to know my world that much better! So exciting!

Sixteen Kingdoms Map

In the process of mapping out my characters’ world, I got lost in the exciting world of fantasy mapmaking online. One of my favourite archive of references was the Tor Books blog. Just head to Tor Books and click on their Maps tag for a comprehensive list of every post they have on fantasy mapmaking. Sooo much map goodness – and any number of posts where fantasy artists chat about the process of creating a map based on an author’s world. I always love reading about a creative process!

Some fantasy authors are pretty happy to throw their mapmakers a rough sketch of where everything is and let them take it from there. Others, however, are extraordinary artists who have already done half the work by drawing some hell amazing maps of their world. Take Gentleman Bastards author Scott Lynch, for example. JUST LOOK at his rough sketches of Camorr and the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows. 

Scott Lynch, Camorr, City, world building, map making, map, fantasy fiction, Gentlemen Bastards, Seven Marrows

It is no wonder Scott Lynch’s world building skills are first class (my particular favourite is the second book in the trilogy, Red Sea Under Red Skies). LOOK at everything he’s put down for his map of the City of Camorr. All the details. Even colour!

Scott Lynch, Camorr, City, world building, map making, map, fantasy fiction

Needless to say, I am pretty jealous of Scott Lynch’s mad map skills.(NB: You can find more of Scott Lynch’s maps here, where I unashamedly stole these maps from. Hey, don’t look at me like I’m some sort of thief, the Crooked Warden and Locke would approve.)

Another good place I found myself often referencing while drawing my maps is this website by Jonathan Roberts, a professional fantasy mapmaker (how awesome does a job like that sound?) On his site, he offers heaps of helpful tips and tutorials on how to draw fantasy maps, for example, how to draw a mountain range or signify a forest on your map. That helped me a lot with adding the kind of details I wanted for my world!

At the end of it, I was glad I had mapped my world out on paper because, as I’ve said, it’s given me a much better idea of the world my characters live in and also made me that much more excited to begin working on my WIP again. Let’s face it, world building is one of the best things about writing fantasy fiction and map making adds to the fun.


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