If you write fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, you’ll need to think about world building — crafting the set principles and constraints that govern your heroine’s environment: political, social, technical, magical, geographic, climatic, and the like.
There are a huge number of resources available to assist you in all facets of world building, but I’m going focus some available to help you with geography; in a word — map-making.
Even if your world is not fully fleshed out, your heroine will likely be traveling during your story — to meet people, complete quests, look for information, collect allies, and/or collect allies and, of course, vanquish villains.
Sometimes she undertakes such journeys willingly, other times she is compelled to do so against her inclinations or better judgment.
Whichever is the case, having a map can help you keep straight distances, travel times, and relative locations of towns, castles, cities, forests, rivers — whatever geographic items are necessary for you to advance the story.
Your map may never be shown to anyone else; you may decide to use it only as a writing reference. Even if this is the case, you will find a map an invaluable planning instrument.
So what tools are available to you, as writer, to create your map?
Below I provide three examples of simple tools you can use along with resource links. I say “simple” because you’re a writer, not a graphic artist (OK, maybe you are both, but most are not). You want to spend time writing, not learning how to use a piece of software or squiring skills you will use only occasionally.
Paper and Pencil
No software at all involved with this method. Just grab a piece of paper and pencil and start.
Actually, it’s not quite that simple, and there are some techniques you can employ to make your efforts more effective.
Here’s a tutorial series by YouTuber Nate at WASD20 on how to use paper and pencil to map your world. It’s six parts long and covers everything from drawing continents to rivers, towns, rests, you name it. The pencil skill level exhibited may be a bit greater than yours, but I think the principles are applicable by even the most drawing-challenged among writers (like me).
I was particularly interested in the way he decides on the shape of his continents.
While Nate’s focus is on fantasy worlds for gaming, in the first video he gives a nod to novel writers as well.
His commentary provides lots of information to consider when building your heroine’s world and his videos are worth a look even if you don’t intend to use paper and pencil.
Still not sure of your ability to wield a pencil and paper? No problem. You can create basic maps in PowerPoint as well.
PowerPoint offers a number of shape tools such as squares and rectangles which are perfect for indicating buildings, town, villages cities, fields, or any feature that consists of roughly square shapes.
There is a free form pencil tool that can be used to draw rivers and borders, and a “Free form Scribble” tool to indicate things like bridges.
I created this PowerPoint map to help me sort out locations and distances for my climatic battle scene in Western Watch. You’ll note it mostly consists of square shapes and arrows, though I did use the scribble tool for the river.
PowerPoint’s advantage is that you already have a copy of it if you have Microsoft Office, and likely have a working knowledge of it.
Given time, you can make some fairly sophisticated maps. However, I think PowerPoint is best suited for mapping portions of countries or even just individual battlefields — maps where you don’t have to worry about crafting continent outlines.
For more information on using PowerPoint for this purpose see: PowerPoint Maps: From CC2 to PowerPoint for Drawing Maps as well as How to Create Maps in PowerPoint. The latter is mostly concerned with drawing maps of an urban nature but useful principles are provided.
If you don’t have a lot of time (and if you are writer, you likely do not) your PowerPoint map will probably tend to look a bit “blocky” but there is nothing wrong with that if the map is meant only as a planning tool.
Let’s say you want something that’s pretty easy to learn and provides a bit more visual appeal than a PowerPoint map. In that case I recommend you take a look at the Inkarnate beta release.
Inkarnate is a web-based tool designed to draw fantasy maps. It is in beta right now and you can get access by merely providing and email address and password. Inkarnate is relatively easy to learn and allows you to make serviceable maps in a reasonable period of time — these are maps that actually look like maps that would be used in a fantasy game or novel.
There a number of tools you can use to paint different types of landscape such as mountains or grassland, sculpt continents, add forests, roads, towns, cities, lakes and rivers.
I made the following rough map of the area covered by the PowerPoint map above. It’s not finished, and there are some things I would do over (the hill line east of the river doesn’t look that good), but you can see the tool can produce more aesthetically pleasing results than PowerPoint
You can save your maps for future editing and download them as JPGs. It’s a pretty cool tool and I would recommend checking it out.
For a quick guided tour of Inkarnate, take a look at Nate’s video on YouTube:
So there you have it, three tools to help you map your heroine’s world.
Do you draw maps for your stories? If so, how do you do it? Which tools do you use?
Thanks for reading, and I will see you again next time.