Worldbuilding in Fiction – Geography 1: Maps

While setting usually doesn’t make a story in and of itself, a well-defined setting that is fitting with its plot can make a story far more rich and engaging. At the same time, a poorly thought out story can confuse readers as to locations, distance, and travel.

One book with fantastic geographical features, a well-thought out set of locations, and gorgeously written pieces on travel and setting is Watership Down by Richard Adams. A classic novel written for children but enjoyable on a different level for adults, Watership Down follows a set of male rabbits as they leave their home warren in search of a new one.

So why praise this book, a book about anthropomorphic rabbits, on its geography? Don’t many fantasy books have maps and plans and fantastic journeys? Does not the average fantasy writer have a much wider variation of settings, with grander and more pointed importance?

Perhaps. But what Adams does in Watership Down is make the journey come to life. The obstacles that are carefully and purposefully placed are intrinsically important to the story. The lay of the land, the placement of roads and railroad tracks, the idea of the existence of an ocean, and the presence of enemy forces are all important to the way the story plays out. It’s one of those stories that feels like the place existed before the plot.

So how can this lesson be applied?

Even if a reader won’t keep up with exactly all the directions and landmarks of a place, they can keep up with whether or not your travel times make sense. If you travel between the same two places and take half the time in one instance, there better be a reason!

It is easy to forget, though. A reader can focus on the inaccuracies in subjects they care about, whereas the writer must be concerned with inconsistencies in every realm. One way to make your geography and travel make more sense as you write is to make a to-scale map to help remind you.

Making A Rough To-Scale Map

A functional map doesn’t need to be very in-depth, just have a rough outline and enough room to write details as you figure them out.

If you have already written your story, it’s always a nice idea to make a map to be certain that your geography was consistent. Read over your work and take notes like “Main character traveled from the city to the village in 2 hours.” Collect all geographic information you can. Below is a table of cities and travel times that I came up with for a modern setting.

Travel Time in Minutes by Car

New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
New Alcaran 38 89
Karlotte 38 51 46
Port Rumber 89 51 18
Davistown 46 18

In your book, you may not have so many details concerning your cities or places. Don’t worry, that’ll be fine. You’ll have more leeway to change up your places and positions.  If you have as much data as I have above, you’ll easily be able to tell if your story’s geography makes sense – you’ll see why later – but you won’t be able to adjust and make a different map.

Gather Your Materials

To make a useful map that makes sense, you can take a long time measuring distances (take the travel times above, figure out a scale with a ruler), or you can cheat with the following materials:

  • Materials for Map MakingPushpins – the number of these should match the number of locations on your map.
  • Wide rubber bands – the amount of these could vary depending on the distances and amount of data you have, so I suggest having more than you think you’ll need.  I guess you could also use string, but you’d have to tie knots and that could mess up your scale and be tedious.
  • Ruler – to help you determine the scale
  • Scissors
  • Paper(s)
  • A bulletin board would be nice, but I’m cheap and lazy and just used a couch (don’t tell anyone…).
  • Permanent Marker, Pencil and Pen
  • Scanner and GIMP or Photoshop if you want to make it pretty later

The first batch of steps is determining the scale.

  1. Label your pushpins using the permanent marker so you can identify which landmark or city is which.  I numbered mine 1 through 4.
  2. Cut the rubber bands so that they’re flat strips rather than curved bands.
  3. Choose the two landmarks with the largest distance between them.  Poke each of these pushpins through the ends of a rubber band.
  4. Measure the distance between the center of the two pushpins with a ruler.  Divide the distance by travel time (see note at the bottom of the page for multiple travel methods) to get your scale.  Calculate the length of each trip in rubber-band-distance by multiplying this number with the travel time (as seen in the table above).  You’ll come up with a new table like this one.  My scale was 19 cm/89 minutes.
    Rubber Band Distance in Centimeters

    New Alcaran Karlotte Port Rumber Davistown
    New Alcaran 8.1 19
    Karlotte 8.1 10.8 9.8
    Port Rumber 19 10.8 3.8
    Davistown 9.8 3.8
  5. Cut pieces of rubber band so that your trips are the right length.  For instance, I cut an 8.1 cm rubber band for New Alcaran to Karlotte.  Then, poke the two appropriate pushpins through the rubber band.  You may end up with some pushpins that have collected several rubber bands.
  6. You’ll have what looks like a mess of rubber and pushpins.  Choose one of the pushpins connected to your longest rubber band and poke it through your piece of paper.  Push the other end of the longest band into the paper, keeping it taut (or, if your travel must necessarily wind, leave it appropriately loose).  Here it is helpful to have a bulletin board so your pushpins will stay in place in your piece of paper.
  7. From there, take a connecting pushpin and extend so the rubber band is taut but not forcefully stretched and push it into your piece of paper.  Keep going until all the pushpins have been inserted.  You can rearrange to get everything onto one page, or just add paper to use multiple pages in a pinch.

Push Pin MapSo, as you can see to the left, what I made was pretty simple – only four landmarks, or cities, as per my plan.  More cities will take more time and be more confusing, but it can be sorted out.  These towns worked out nicely, with taught lines between them.

This is also where you’ll find out if your geography makes sense or not.  If you have any three cities that connect with each other, your bands will form a triangle.  However, you may experience floppy lines that you can’t get rid of.  Why?

The rule for triangles is that the lengths of two sides added together must be longer than the remaining side.  So, let’s say that my Port Rumber to New Alcaran rubber band length was 20 cm.  This is longer than the sum of Port Rumber to Karlotte and New Alcaran to Karlotte, or 19.9 cm.  If I don’t want to add ‘difficult terrain’ or have my cities be in a straight line, I’ll need to re-think my travel distances.

You may have cities with only one connection, so you can move those around until you have what you want.  If in the end you have nice, straight lines, everything makes sense and you can continue to the next step.

The next set of steps are how to draw your map and have more than just a piece of paper with holes in it.Map Scan

  1. If you have a lot of connections, consider drawing penciled lines beneath your connecting bands.  That way you have a nice guide once the pins are gone.
  2. Pull out your pushpins and, using a pen or pencil (pencil can be erased, so I’d go with that), draw the coastlines, rivers, roads, and any other feature that you think important for your map.
    (You can depart from what you saw exactly with the rubber bands – in fact, natural barriers make it preferable for humans to build curving roads!  You can see a scan of what I drew to the right, complete with a few leftovers of what was on the back of the page.)
  3. Get a new sheet of paper and poke new holes if you don’t like what you come up with and can’t erase it all.
  4. If you want to stop here, label your pushpin holes with city names and call it a day.
  5. If you want to make your map pretty, scan in your lines to the computer or ink them with a pen.

Making Your Map Pretty

You can try inking your page and carefully drawing your letters, which is a good option and can lead to some gorgeous maps, but I’m not going to detail that process here.  You can take some ideas from my computerized process into account, though.

I have Photoshop CS6 because my company has a contract that allowed me to get it without paying from my own pocket, but you can achieve the same quality of work using the free program GIMP.

Map LabelsIn Photoshop, I opened my scanned sheet and shrunk it down to make a smaller file (and a smaller photo to work with for a website space).  After that, I added a new layer (CTRL+Shift+N for those on PCs).  On this new layer, I used a 1-px black brush to follow the outline of the coast.  You can alternatively use color selection on the background layer to re-draw your coasts or roads, but this act can give you the chance to make a more detailed coast or fix some of the problem areas on your map.

I then added another layer, switched the brush to orange, and drew in the roads.  If I were actually going to use this map, I might consider adding a few more roads to nowhere, perhaps making up a few random towns as I went.

Anyway, after that, I made the labels using the text function, then the key by making a straight line of the appropriate color next to my labels.  After that, I cropped the picture to cut off the edges, made a new layer underneath that was white, and deleted the old background to get rid of all the trash from the backside of my paper.  Map Colored

You can stop here, or you can add color or more details.  I suggested above to put your roads and coasts on a different layer because, here, you can copy the coast and paste to a new layer.  This will allow you to select either land or sea to mess with.  You can use the magic wand to select, for instance, just the land pieces.  From that, you can use brushes however you want and not worry about coloring outside the lines.

You can see to the right that I chose to make Port Rumber and New Alcaran port towns on the coastlines.  I used green round brushes with 60% opacity to make the trees around New Alcaran, then 100% opacity left slanted brush to make the eastern shrubbery color.  100% opacity gray brushes created the city color.

For the ocean, I paint bucketed blue then used the magic wand to select the ocean.  For a quick wavy look, I filtered in the oil paint effect then blurred it just enough that you couldn’t tell that’s what I’d done.  Spending more time on this could have given you a better look, but I think that’s pretty good considering the effort I gave it.

All told, this took me about an hour.

You can also make these maps look old, or give them a photographic feel (I have an example of this below).  This will probably take significantly more time, but it can feel rewarding once a major effort is complete.

Now… I didn’t make up these distances.  I copied the driving times from Google maps for four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area and, from that, constructed my map.

Map Side by SideSo, as you can see, if you have appropriate travel distances when you make your rubber bands, your distances between your towns on paper will be roughly what they have to be.  If your map cannot work, you may want to make some changes to your geography to keep everything aligned.

Making Your Maps Super Pretty

I’ve made several maps.  Below, see a world map I made to go with my novel. I tried to give it a futuristic feel.  Whereas the above took me an hour, this took me several.  I find this to be my prettiest, so that’s why it’s here.

World Map

I’ve also made other maps for a more fantastical setting, with older appearance.  It’s one of my favorite parts of worldbuilding, so I hope you can enjoy map-making too.

Notes

What if your travel times aren’t all the same?  For instance, what if your characters are flying on dragonback between two landmarks, but riding camels between a couple of others?  You can take that into account with your scale.  Divide the speed of the ‘normal’ (or most common) travel method by your second travel method to get your relative speed.  To get the length of your rubber band, multiply your travel time by your scale (described earlier) and then by your relative speed.  Here I’ve tabulated the speeds of several common travel methods.  Unfortunately, you’ll have to determine the airspeed velocities of dragons and unladen swallows on your own time.

Transportation Method Speed in mph Speed in kph Notes
Ships
WWII Era Aircraft Carrier 37.4 60.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Era Aircraft Carrier 38.7 62.2 Other battleships in the group can be estimated at the same speed
Modern Ocean Liner 25 40
Spanish Galleon 9.2 14.8 As in pirate ships
The Mayflower 2 3.2 Other old sailing ships
Land Vehicles
Car on Highway 65 104.6
Car in Cities 25 40.2
Steam Engine Train 78 125 Technological developments may alter this. Estimate for late 1800’s.
Electric Train 300 482 Technological developments may alter this.
Subways 33 52
Bicycle 15.5 24.9
WWII Era Tank 28 45 M4-Sherman
Modern Era Tank 45 74.2 M1-Abrams
Aircraft
Commercial Jet 591 951
Modern Fighter Jet 1385 2228 F22-Raptor
WWII Era Fighter Plane 400 643 P51-Mustang
Horses
Horse, Walking 6 9.6 Normal horses for long distance
Horse, Trotting 8 12.8 Like fancy walking, but less sustainable
Horse, Gallop 28 45 Only over short distances
Horse, Ambling 15 24 Sustainable over long distance, but only select breeds
Horse with Wagon 3 4.8
Humans
Walking 3.1 5
Jogging 6 9.6
Running 12 19.3

Note: This was published by me in June 2015, way before I was trying hard with the blog.  I think this post could be useful for way more people than the 2 I think read it before, hence why I decided to post this again.

20 thoughts on “Worldbuilding in Fiction – Geography 1: Maps

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      Lol – this is, as I said in a final paragraph, a repost. I made this a long time ago, and I put tons of work into it that, by now, is forgotten. I know now that just *part* of this post could have been an entire post on its own, but I didn’t want to milk it more than I already was…

      • crimsonprose says:

        In truth, if I hadn’t gone through a simialr process, I’m not sure I’d have read it. Just to see how eomeone else handled it. It’s speeds and distances I have trouble with. Well, a mythical land can be a tad stretchy, when needed. 🙂

      • H.R.R. Gorman says:

        True. Well, if you ever need to know how fast a thing goes, the research at the bottom took me a little while to put together. Hope you have fun in your own map quests!

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      My friend once asked me to make a map for their fantasy world, and I started it by doing the above – then I found out, unfortunately, that the travel times described in their book was physically impossible without some major barriers. That then went on to inform a sequel, so here I am!

      • Michelle Louring says:

        The post was indeed a bit rough to get through, but simply because there’s a lot of useful information and it’s a lot to absorb all at once 😀
        I think it’s the kind of post that works a lot better if you read it at the same time as following the steps described. Otherwise, you’ll have forgotten most of it by the time you get around to putting the information to good use.

  1. joanne the geek says:

    My Sky-Pirates story was set in a fantasy world I created when I was a teenager. I’ve always had a fairly good idea where everything is, sort of. I have drawn maps on paper, but I’m not a good map drawer. I love looking at maps of other fantasy worlds. I’m not sure how much people look at them for authenticity when it comes to travel times, but thankfully Meela could teleport 😀

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