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Map Making for Fantasy Writers


Maps are a wonderful addition to any fantasy novel. They give the reader an added level of information that helps them visualize and experience the world you have created. A good map can also help you in the writing of your novel. Here are some resources and tips to help you make good maps as a supplement for your writing.


Travel and the Size of your World

One of the biggest questions you have, which is also one of the biggest obstacles to good map making, is getting the size of your world right. If you are writing a fantasy novel the sky is the limit and you can create a world of any size you want (it is your world!). But if you want to stick to some sort of traditional measure you might want to consider the traveling speeds of horses and humans. This will give you a good foundation for how big your world is and how far apart the various landmarks are.

Some very loose rules of thumb are that an average healthy person can walk about twenty miles a day. This is roughly the pace of Roman soldiers on the march -depending on the amount of available daylight. You could of course stretch this in your writing. The distance horses can travel in a day also varies but a well-trained and healthy horse might do around fifty to sixty miles on a good day. Exceptional horses could do more than this, and potentially up to a hundred miles, but this would be a one day feat only and would require weeks of rest and rehabilitation.

The novel you are writing is fantasy and you can make any rules you want but just keep in mind typical travel distances so you can maintain a good sense of scale. It is generally not good to have your travelers walking several hundred miles in a day. Keep this in mind with your writing and with your map making.

If you want to use Leagues as a measure of distance one league is considered to be the distance a man can walk in one hour which is approximately three miles.

The Map Key: Elements to include

The key of a map is a box of information that helps the reader fully understand the map. Here are some key elements you should include with your map.

A Compass - A compass is a small drawing somewhere on the map that shows the four major directions. You should include one on your map. It helps orient the reader and is particularly helpful if you use directions in your writing. If one of your character says something to the effect of "We will reach the Lucky Dragon Tavern by nightfall and in the morning we will set out East toward the Brine River" your reader is able to look at the map and get an instant understanding of what is happening and where the travelers are heading. A detailed compass will show all four map directions of North, South, East, and West. And a scaled down compass will just point out North, which is often sufficient.

A Scale - A scale is a line drawn on the map that shows distances. You can calculate the scale on your map by first measuring the overall size of your map. You divide the distance the map covers by the size of your drawn map in inches. If your map covers 1,000 miles and it is 10 inches in size 1 inch = 100 miles. You create the scale by drawing a 1 inch line then marking it as 1 inch = 100 miles. You can make the scale larger by extending the line another inch and marking the end point as 200 miles.

Making your map more visually appealing - You can make your map more attractive and interesting by drawing in major landscape details. Mountain ranges can be drawn in, small groups of waves can be put in bodies of water, and small trees can be drawn into forested areas. You can even draw small buildings to represent cities and towns.

Writing Names of locations on your map - Here is a good rule of thumb to follow when writing the names of major landmarks on your map: The more important the landmark the bigger the text should be. Use larger letters for big cities and important places, and use smaller letters for less important landmarks. This helps your reader identify major points easier.

The map itself can be made more visually appealing by adding parchment curls at the edges or medieval style borders around the edges. You can even add small drawings of creatures. Whales in the oceans and horses in the plains are common. These are aesthetic improvements that would be done for the final map that goes into the book.

Using your map as you write

Your map can become a useful tool in your writing. Is your main character traveling from one town to another? Check your map. What kind of terrain is between the two towns? Is there a river that needs to be crossed? Is there a desert or heavily forested area? These things can generate new ideas for your story. And remember your scale. Does your map show the distance to be 200 miles? If so, did you write it as a one day journey? And be sensitive to the landscape and how it affects the creatures, races, culture, and plant life in your world. If your map has a variety of eco systems like mountains, forests, deserts, and swamps the life forms in these eco systems has to reflect that. And travelers passing through these systems have to face the challenges that each eco system poses.

Keeping two maps - one for your and one for your readers

I recommend you create two different maps. The first, and larger map, is for your own use and it should be very large - poster board sized if possible. You can add lots of details and even include important notes and plot points on it; and it is imperative that you do it completely in pencil so you can erase and modify it as your writing progresses. Once your novel (and map) is completed you can use this first map to create the second, pared down map that will be included in the novel - usually as a two page spread in the beginning of the book.

Map first or novel first?

Maps and stories go hand in hand and I recommend you develop both simultaneously. The story dictates how the map will be drawn and the map will help you keep things correct in your writing. As you write your story it will bring about changes in your map. The two should develop simultaneously.

You don't have to be a cartographer or artist to make a great map to go along with your book. But you do have to know some rules of thumb to make sure your map is understandable by your reader. A good map will add to the readers experience by helping to make the world you created more vivid and real. And it will be a great tool to help you write a better fantasy novel.

I have lots more articles on writing fantasy here


I also have a tutorial on how to draw and paint out a big fantasy world map:

How to Make a Fantasy Map

In the previous tutorial we made a big sheet of paper. Now, in this tutorial we turn it into a map of a fantasy world. I show you tips and techniques on how to do it and I also have a video. How to Make a big Fantasy Map


World Building

World Building (Science Fiction Writing) This book is designed to give science fiction writers the solid grounding they need in real science to make their fictions read like fact. World Building is a blueprint in words, calculations, tables and diagrams to help writers transport readers from one world to another.