Thinking of adding a map to your epic fantasy story? It’s definitely worth it if your characters are moving around a fair bit in your story and there is some fantastic inspiration out there to help you.
I really enjoy creating maps for my stories. It’s quite therapeutic putting mountains, forests, lakes, cities, etc. on the page exactly where you want them to be so that they suit your story. But there’s also a practical side to creating a map – it helps you to stop from getting lost, not just your readers. It may be a world of your creation, but it’s very easy to have your characters suddenly pop up 400 miles south-west of where they should be or turn north instead of east.
Start at the start – Although it’s possible to create your map after you’ve written your story, I recommend drawing even a rough pencil or computer drawing before you start or when you’re shaping the plot. Then while you’re writing the story if you come across a problem that needs a change or something extra on the map, you have it there in front of you to alter immediately. Don’t leave making the change until later as you’re likely to forget it and your readers will spot the mistake.
Understand what’s possible – A map also helps to visualise your world and understand the distances your characters are going to traverse. For example, it’s possible for a person to walk about 20-30 km in a day (but that’s at a good pace, I’ve personally walked 16km in under 4 hours with few stops and it’s tough), and to ride on horseback about 50-60km (again, at a good pace, but your horse won’t thank you for it, see the web site below for some tips on using horses in your story). These distances are based on reasonably flat or undulating terrain, so if you throw in a few mountains, deserts or rivers, the distance travelled will be shorter in a day. If you’re travelling by sea this will depend very much on the technology you’re using (sail, rowers, steam, etc) and the wind. If you have a good wind blowing you along you could go over 200km per day (or even much further), but if the wind is against you it’s possible you could even go backwards.
How unusual do you get? – This is your fantasy world so there’s nothing to stop you from changing “miles” to “fips” and north-south-east-west to a 3D star. But you have to decide whether this will ultimately confuse not only your reader but also you. If you start down this path you’ll need to establish your new measurements and directions early on for the sake of consistency and your sanity. A map will definitely help as you can state these on the drawing, but your story also needs to incorporate this in a way that your reader can easily translate into what they know. Personally I leave north-south-east-west alone, and I’ll use old or imperial types of distance measurements, e.g. chains, yards, paces, miles, rod, etc. as these can be drawn into the narrative and are easier to remember and visualise by the reader.
Cartography 101 – It really is an art. You can be as plain or as artistic as you want to be. The main thing is that the reader can make out the terrain features and key place names. Otherwise let yourself loose and be as creative as you wish, but within reason, it’s best if your map reflects the “era” and “location” of your fantasy world to give it the right mood. For example, if your world is based on Renaissance Italy, look for inspiration there. If it’s a fantasy set in today’s world you can be far more crisp and modern. Same goes if you have a Japanese theme in your story, or ancient Mayan, or Sumerian. Look at old and modern maps and you’ll get a feel for the types of little inclusions that will give your map an air of authenticity. It’s also worth considering what people believed lived in far-flung places and under the sea as they often put pictures of them on their maps as well (e.g. sea monsters and dragons).
But don’t stuff your map so full of detail that you can’t see the wood for the trees. If you need an extra level of detail in part of your story simply create a “sub-map” that depicts a small piece of your overall fantasy world, and place it strategically at the start of the chapter where it will be used. For example you may create a map of a city, underground cavern, temple, castle, etc. if you feel it adds value to your narrative.
I’ve created a Pinterest board where I’ll post any fabulous map related sites I find, otherwise here are some pretty good sites to get some inspiration. Hopefully you won’t get lost.
Time over distance:
- Advice on using horses in novels and how to treat them.
- How far can a horse travel in a day?
- How far can a person walk in a day?
Old measurements web sites:
- Glossary of ancient and traditional weights and measures (also includes nautical)
- Wikipedia medieval weights and measures (for several countries)
- Viking measurements.
- Imperial measurements.
- Ancient Roman and Egyptian measurements.
Inspiration for your map:
- Cartographers guild – fabulous site which includes fantasy maps as well as real ones.
- The Map room – various real and fictional maps
- 15 beautiful maps from around the world.
- Pinterest board containing some absolutely beautiful maps.
- Mapping history from the British library, which has some lovely ideas about how people shaped maps to try to tell people more than they probably needed to know.
- David Rumsey collection of maps.