World Building Pt. 2 – Maps

Ok, so the map of the world isn’t really the logical next step in world creation. Before you can have an effective map, you need to know a lot about what you want the world to accomplish. But let’s face it — drawing maps is pretty much the best part.

I like to draw maps. That’s how I doodle when other people are talking, by drawing coastlines and then putting in mountains, rivers, cities, national boundaries. Then, if the map that results intrigues me, I begin to make up more information — which nations speak the same language, what their history has been, which nations are prospering, which waning.

–Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy¹

I’ve created made up maps since I was, I dunno, little. Maps are fascinating, I don’t know why. And as I’ve learned more about geography and geology and history and everything else, maps have just become more and more interesting.

The benefit of creating a map — even a rough one — so early in the process of world building, is that the process of creating a map awakens my mind to all sorts of other realities about this world. If I go with a story concept, and build the world directly from there, everything I create in the world will be related to my concept. That’s just not an interesting world. By making a map of a larger area, I start asking more questions — what are the countries around the area my story takes place in? How to they interact? What’s their history? Who’s in power? How does the physical landscape affect how people get around, migrate, trade, speak?

For Shadow of Death, I knew I needed certain things to fuel a pirate story: lots of ocean, islands, water-based trade, etc. I also knew I wanted a lot of different cultures colliding in this maritime locale. That meant that the sea on which the pirates sailed had to be surrounded by a lot  of different land and countries.

I’m also building this world from bits of a world I created previously, so I had some ideas about counties and landmasses I wanted to include. But I also wanted to change things around so that, for instance, more of the counties I had designed before would border this maritime area.

So I started sketching some landmasses. I moulded them around a central sea area, and sketched dotted lines of island chains between them — this would be where the many independant pirate-ridden trading towns would be, which would create the framework for a thriving maritime world.

But as landmasses are sketched, inevitably there are parts that don’t — won’t, can’t — relate to the central area of the story. Yet these end up having the same questions asked of them — who lives there? What’s their culture like? And as these questions are asked, the world grows richer.

Plans and Mistakes

During world creation, I always have some plans for the world, whether or not they relate to the story directly. Some of the ideas I’ve had before come to the forefront, and I mould my world around those ideas.

I knew I wanted this world to be complex enough to sustain other stories. I also knew that my interest in real-world history and mythology was going to heavily influence me. I wanted to include locations in my world that mirrored in many ways real-world locations: an African-savannah-like plain; an Amazon-like jungle; an Arabia-like desert; Indonesia-like archipelagos; etc. So as I drew out my continents, I took all this into consideration — I needed large areas for desert and jungle, I needed mountains separating them, while all at the same time, making sure the areas I wanted to be part of my pirate culture were bordering the central sea.

But another part of mapmaking is the mistakes I make — or even the questions I deliberately leave unanswered. Sometimes these lead to the most interesting parts of the world. As Orson Scott Card writes:

…I believe that, when it comes to storytelling — and making up maps of imaginary lands is a kind of storytelling — that mistakes are often the beginning of the best ideas. After all, a mistake wasn’t planned. It isn’t likely to be a cliché. All you have to do is think of a reason why the mistake isn’t a mistake at all, and you might have something fresh and wonderful, something to stimulate a story you never thought of quite that way before.²

I find this philosophy takes root even more when I almost set myself up for it. I placed a bunch of towns and cities and fortresses across my map, and found myself stuck with the task of naming them all. As I did, I first of all had to think of naming conventions — if this country is like English, it’s going to have -shires and -boroughs and things, whereas the one that borrows from mesoamerican culture is going to have names with tl and z and other specific letter combinations.

But second of all, I would name things with words. “Storm Keep,” on an island in the middle of the sea. Why is it called Storm Keep? At present, I have no answer. Maybe it’s surrounded by a perpetual storm, brought on by terrible magics. Maybe it’s home to a powerful storm wizard. Maybe it was conquered by orckish fleets during a major storm, or by a fleet called the Storm Fleet. Whatever I end up going with, the random name I came up with will have added something to the history of the world.

(I even do this with stories themselves sometimes; I’ll put in some note the characters find and I’ll include references to things that mean nothing to me. Then later in the writing process, it’ll come back and suddenly those things will have importance and meaning. Sometimes those random meaningless additions have actually helped solve plot problems for me in the future — this has actually happened multiple times. Randomness seems to favour me.)

Putting it all together

So I sketch, and I make stuff up, and suddenly I have a fairly vibrant, full world. And of course it’s nowhere near done — all I really have is some land and some countries and cities and names of things that don’t mean a lot and some vague ideas about culture and national histories and conflicts. But with this opening sketch, I can see what else I have to fill in — and more importantly, I have a lot of room to play in. With a world this big, I can have a place for anything I might need, and any random idea I come up with can have a home.

And so I went from a basic sketch:

(note how I ran out of space in the bottom right corner and did an inset sketch of the rest; note too how I realized I wanted to move things after sketching them, and drew little arrows)

to a scanned and altered image:
and then I used a mapmaking program I have called Campaign Cartographer 3 to render a more streamlined version:
and finally added forests, countries, and labels…
And thus I have a working world map, and all the fun that comes with it.


¹ Orson Scott Card, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books (1990), p. 28.

² Ibid, p. 29.

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