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Beginning with a Map

June 13, 2011

I mentioned in my weekly report, yesterday, that I’d drawn a map for my current novel project, The Book of M.  I’ve written about mapmaking on my blog before, but seeing as it’s been over a year, I figure the statute of limitations are up on that one.  I said this, previously:

Maps have always been one of my favorite parts of fantasy novels.  When provided, I refer to them frequently throughout reading a novel.  Maps give the world a sense of place, a sense of being real in a way that words alone cannot.  The words and the map together make the world what it is, making the characters who interact in it all the more real.

I think what I said then is still an eloquent observation, so I share it again. 

When last I talked about maps in the context of writing a fantasy novel, I was relating the tale of how I had embarked on a new, computer-assisted mapping project for the world of my “Project SOA” books using The Gimp.  Ultimately, however, my little laptop proved insufficiently powerful to handle the map I was then creating.  (I’ll share an image of what I had done, so far, down below.)

The Map of the Book of M

My hand-drawn map of the world of the Book of M, with the few named locations conveniently removed to protect the as-yet innocent.

Now, I’m working on “Book of M”.  And last week, I realized I’d reached the point where I needed a map.  But, this time I don’t have time to waste wrangling with GIMP on a machine that was never meant to run the GIMP.  So, for now at least, it’s back to my old, tried-and-true mapmaking tools: pencil and paper.  And of course, why not make use of the gloriously blank pages of my Hot New Writer’s Journal?  So that’s just what I did. 

And why am I so up-in-arms about having a working map for this project?  Because, well, I’m tired of writing in my notes about “And then Protagonist leaves The Village and journeys to The City across The Wilderness.”  I mean, in the context of the story, Protag didn’t leave a place called “The Village” to go to “The City”.  Those placeholder names are like Platonic Ideals: they’re archetypal of a village or a city, but the places in the story have real names and history.  Yet I didn’t quite know what those names were, or what their geographic relationship to each other was. 

Sometimes a map helps me think up names for places.  In this case… I came up with a couple names I didn’t have on hand already prior to putting pencil to paper.  And  yes, sometimes the map doesn’t help with coming up with names, because  you’re being more particular about it.  For instance, I wanted the culture of The City where my protagonist eventually ends up to have a Spanish/Italian flavor.  Meanwhile, I wanted the culture of the co-protagonist to have more of a Celtic or Germanic influence.  Part of that cultural flavor, of course, comes in the names and languages, and that means coming up with a few rules for the sound of the languages where these people come from.  Which takes a bit of research into the phonology of Romance languages versus that of Celtic and Germanic languages, which is a whole lot of thinking about stuff whereas I really just want to be thinking about and plotting the story.

So, that said, some of the names I ultimately did come up with may turn out to be nothing more than placeholders… if I find that these names clash with the phonologies of the respective language and culture groups these characters represented.  (This same problem plagues the naming of the protagonist and other main characters.  One step at a time. Still, I think it might behoove me to do some reading up on the phonologies of the various cultures I’m trying to emulate really soon, so I can create some phonological rules for my own world.)  Regardless, just having this map, even if populated with placeholder names that I may eventually have to replace, makes the story feel just a little more real to me.  And that’s an important step in my creative process for a story this big.

Anyway, I’ve been drawing maps for my fantasy stories since grade school.  It’s just a part of my process… whether that’s using pencil and paper – the old, classical methodology – or computer-assisted tools, and whether that’s for fantasy novels, nebulous fantasy-themed ideas, or attmepts at RPG campaign worlds. I’ve learned a lot in the many years I’ve doing this.   Stuff about tectonics and geology and climate, and so on. Most of that learning I didn’t really bring to bear on this particular project.  I just wanted a quick, easy, and decent-looking map to get me moving on the project.  (And besides, it’s part of the background for the plot that the climate is not what you would expect it to be…)

(As a study in contrast, the last big-ish project I completed, the novelette “PFTETD”, took place in a contemporary world: i.e. it’s something of an “urban fantasy” except for the “urban” part.  So, I relied heavily on Google Maps and other online resources to provide me with maps of the places where my story was taking place.  I didn’t need to create a map because I could see it in more-or-less real-time.)

Now, someday, I will get back to working on “Project SOA”.  It’s kind of my Magnum Opus.  I just don’t have the skill needed to create a Magnum Opus at this stage of my writing career.  That’s why I need to write things like “Book of M”, first: Book of M is a story that will be awesome even if it turns out I’m a talentless hack, and in the writing of it I may become something more than a mere talentless hack: I may acquire the skills I need to eventually tackle “Project SOA”.  When I do get around to writing it, I’ll want a map.  More specifically, I’ll want to finish that map I started working on using The GIMP.

Map of Project SOA

The world of Project SOA in all her unfinished and unpolished glory. Clearly, this leaves a lot to be desired, even if what's there looks good for what it is...

In the meantime, here’s how it looked when last I had the time and processing power to handle it.  Not bad – almost artistic.  But a long way to go before I can call it a map.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2011 6:21 pm

    Neat! I really like your hand drawn one, for some reason. I think it has that “artistic” quality you mentioned, hehe. What program did you use to make the second map? (When I made mine I used Photoshop, only because I’ve been using it for school and was somewhat familiar with it at the time, heh.)

    When you travel to several places in your story, it is very helpful to have a map—not only to get a general sense of location but also a sense of scale and distance. If you create a scale on your map it can help with estimating how long it would take for your character(s) to travel from one point to another. (Just from reading some of my favorite author’s blogs and reviews about their stories, I know this is something some readers actually pay attention to and will happily call out unrealistic travel times when they see them, heh. As if writers already didn’t have enough to worry about…)

    • June 14, 2011 8:26 am

      Thanks. The old-fashioned hand-drawn style usually does have that artistic quality. (In another life, back in High School and my college years, I was a sometimes artist, mostly with pencil-drawing. Drawing was always a second-love, after writing, though.) The second map down there, such as it is, was made with GIMP, which is sort of an open-source clone of Photoshop. (That’s a gross over-simplification; in fact, Photoshop does many things much better than GIMP, whereas GIMP does some other things better than Photoshop. Still, it’s a pretty powerful photo-manip program, and it’s a pretty slick package. And, of course, the price is right: free.) The problem is, though, that my comptuer isn’t really strong enough to manage the running GIMP on the size of image file I’ve been working on – the map at full size is pretty large, though I can’t remember the exact pixel dimensions. I agree that one of the best uses of maps is to help get a sense of scale and distance. That’s one of the reasons I like having a map… it helps me make those sorts of judgments.

    • June 14, 2011 10:55 am

      Although… I do sort of think I should point out, it doesn’t take a lot of artistic talent to produce a hand-drawn map like this: a lot of squiggly lines for coasts and rivers, a bunch of inverted-Vs for mountains, a few christmas-tree shapes for trees, a smattering of dots for a desert, and so on.

      The iconography of a map like this isn’t terribly complex. (I learned most of it from similar-looking maps in fantasy books as a kid growing up.)

      The only thing is, it’s sometimes helpful to have an understanding of where these different parts go and why, but that’s not too difficult to figure out, too.

  2. June 14, 2011 9:15 am

    I’m writing mystery stories, and for some of them I go back to the old-style approach of having a floor plan. “X came out of the door at the end of the hall, passed the second door, didn’t look in, but then turned left at the corridor,” etc. Much better with a floor plan. I don’t know why they’re (apparently) less popular than they used to be.

    I use OpenOffice Draw, since the easy thing about floor plans, as opposed to maps, is that they are all straight lines and right angles.

    • June 14, 2011 9:29 am

      Back in the day, I would have used graph paper for something like this. 🙂 Yes, I can see how this would be helpful for the mystery genre. I’ve been contemplating a floorplan as well… in Book of M a significant portion of the beginning takes place in a large, multi-level structure… and I’m wondering to myself if it would make sense to have a clear idea of what’s where inside that structure before writing it.

  3. June 14, 2011 2:49 pm

    I am definitely going to try out the GIMP. My novel is not fantasy but takes place in an area I created and a map is necessary … unfortunately my artistic skills are limited to writing (although I did do this really good pencil sketch of the sinking Titanic one time) and I need some assistance. I’m also right about where you are with finding names for people and places and sometimes it just looks and feels better if they’re connected with a map. I don’t know if you’ve seen Tangled, but one of my favorite parts is when they roll the end credits and show a map of their Kingdom. Names of the places are written and drawn but also little arrows and phrases like “got shot here” and “avoid this horse here.” It just makes everything a little more clear and helps you complete your mental image.

    • June 14, 2011 3:15 pm

      I’ve seen Tangled, but didn’t make it through the end credits. (I usually stay for or leave movies on through the end credits, myself, but Dear Wife has a different mind on that subject and these days I usually defer unless I know there’s something interesting I’d like to see at the end of the credits.) I will say this about using GIMP: if your goal is just to create a simple looking map, GIMP can do that as well as any drawing program. If you want something that looks good and artistic… that will require a significant investment of time and learning to get the most out of the program. It can do some really awesome, really good looking things. But it’ll take some work on your part. It took me months to get to the point where I was at in the image I posted… and that’s nowhere near done. But otherwise, yes, I agree: having the map just ties everything together nicely, for me.

  4. June 14, 2011 4:27 pm

    And a lovely map it is! I’m almost embarrassed to share my map. I think that no one ever will see that little ugly. It’s the scale that I can never handle quite right: how many days walk/horse from one place to another, and such.

    The Book of M map reminds me a bit of Asia & Europe mixed together with Alaska? Am I seeing things or was this intentional? LOL

    • June 14, 2011 4:42 pm

      I was thinking the same thing! But that lends it a very familiar and naturalistic feel, methinks.

      • June 14, 2011 4:52 pm

        That it does… I try for that naturalistic feel in my maps, where possible. Someday, I may blog about the study and research I did before I launched into the map project for the “Project SOA” map…

    • June 14, 2011 4:50 pm

      Well, you’ll at least have to show it to the artist assigned to create the map that will actually appear in the published bok 😉 As for the Book of M map: well, no, it wasn’t intentional… but now that you mention it, it does bear a certain resemblance, doesn’t it?

  5. June 25, 2011 4:11 pm

    I love drawing maps – usually islands connected with railway lines. It’s something I tied into my novel as the main character has a similar habit. Also it’s set in a world similar-ish to Europe so I took an outline of Europe to fill in my new country names – some are the same, some have slightly different names and other have amalgamated into new states.

    Have you ever used Campaign Cartographer or similar programs from ProFantasy? Their intended really for RPGers but don’t see any reason author’s couldn’t use them as well. I’ve always been tempted but their pretty expensive bits of kit.

    • June 27, 2011 12:09 pm

      I haven’t ever used Campaign Cartographer, no – though as both a writer and a once-and-maybe-hopefully-future RPGer, I’m not opposed to the idea of using RPG-design tools for literary novel world-design. I wondered whether I should try-and-buy Camp. Cartog. at one time… but ultimately I decided it was just costly enough that it wasn’t worth it and that I didn’t love, love the maps it produced (they can be very well done, but they weren’t my favorite). I felt like I was able to produce similar-quality results with free tools… so that’s what I did instead. When I finally settled on GIMP… I learned it did have a pretty steep learning curve… but I figured it was easier for me to invest the time to learn it, seeing as I had time at the time, than to invest money to buy something like Camp. Cartog., which is easier to use, seeing as how I didn’t really have the money to invest.

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