Geographic Confessions

I am not a cartographer.

In high school, my geography teacher did well by her students. I know that there are seven continents (if you include Antarctica, which I do), I have a general idea where most countries, seas and oceans are, as well as the locations of many land-features such as the Alps and the Mohave desert. Our final assignment in geography was to create a relatively detailed and accurate map of the world with certain features labeled from memory.  It was very hard, but rewarding.

You are probably wondering where I am headed with this ramble. As with most things I ramble about, it connects to writing.

Most people who read fantasy are familiar with the attendant maps. Some  even read while referencing the maps to see where they are. A friend recently confronted me with the lack of… I don’t know a word for it. Directionality? He did not have a good idea of the layout of the story’s geography, and it bothered him.

It has been bothering me for a while, too. I have a general idea of the area and the world, but I need more. Like a student in a life-drawing class, I need to understand the skeleton of my subject before I can draw it convincingly.

I need maps.

I need maps that only I can make, and I am not a cartographer. I have been putting it off because I am afraid of backing myself into a corner, making a map that is somehow “wrong.”  What if it is, unconsciously, too like Earth? What if it is too off the wall and ceases to make sense? What if the rain-shadows aren’t where they are supposed to be (yes, I think about things like that)?

But the truth is that I need the framework. The better I know the territory, the world, the more convincingly I can write the characters’ interactions with it. Flopping about in vague mush isn’t going to get me anywhere. Is the story in the Northern or Southern hemisphere (getting my head around Southern-hemisphere mechanics is daunting, but tempting), how many continents are there? What influences the weather-patterns? Where are the trade-routes?

What is an author to do?

In looking for a starting place, I came upon this blog:

This lets me know that others have already blazed this trail. There are already tools, such as Campaign Cartographer 3 by ProFantasy. Personally, I really like playing with this free fractal map generator:

There are resources for cities and dungeons, too.

But it seems to me that these are only places to start, and most likely other writers out there have discovered other useful resources. And so, I give a shout-out.

If you know any good resources for creating maps of other worlds, let me know in the comments. I will do a follow-up post including them. If you, like me, are intimidated by this problem, at least we can commiserate and then encourage each other. If, on the other hand, you are an amateur (or professional) cartographer, I would love to get your input!

About jubilare

Just another tree in the proverbial forest. Look! I have leaves! View all posts by jubilare

19 responses to “Geographic Confessions

  • Rob

    I hate it when a fantasy novel has a map that looks like a two-year-old drew it! I also hate it when an author tries to go into too much detail about a particular place or a character’s movements within an environment. It diminishes the flow of the narrative for me. Just give me the basics and let my imagination do the rest. Please!

    OK. Rant over. Good night.

    • Rob

      Oooops! I meant “the basics.”

      I hate it when I screw up comments!

    • jubilare

      I hate it when the geographic features on a fantasy novel map make zero sense. Like, rainforest nuzzled up against a desert and random mountain ranges scattered about with the author having no idea how they got there…
      I love the detail Tolkien gives, but there aren’t many authors who can get away with that, and I don’t intend to try. However, I need a map in order to write the story.
      One can tell instantly, when looking at a life-drawing, whether or not the artist understands the skeletal structure of the person he is drawing. Knowing the frame makes the outward form more solid and believable. Just so with maps, in this case. If I know where things are in relation to each other, and what the distances are… if I know the migration patterns, trade-routes, natural boundaries, etc. then I can form the story around that framework and it will make sense. :)

  • Brenton Dickieson

    This is really helpful, Jubilare. I made a (bad) map for my story in Fall 2012, but it is quite bad. This might be fun.

  • petunialu

    Austin has done some map-creation research– have you asked him? Though it sounds like you’re already on the right track :-)

    • jubilare

      I’d love to get his help, but until he is a less busy boy, I must take care of what I can. :) Maybe once I have something workable, I can get his input. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • sariounette

    This is going to sound unrelated, but have you tried Geoguessr? (
    Fun fun fun ;) See how good you really are at Geography ;D And yeah, people should stop building replicas of everything!

    • jubilare

      Alright, the honor of having you visit my blog has lured me back, but only briefly! *hugs*
      I have not tried Geoguesser. I doubt I would be good at it, as most of my knowledge is very general, but it might be fun. My father always used to quiz my brother and I, and we often failed.
      Not only should they stop building replicas (and bad replicas, at that) but they should make maps that make sense!

  • Stephanie Orges

    Omigoodness. I was just about to write a blog post about “creating a detailed world.” At least, that was the topic listed in my content calendar, but I kind of decided I couldn’t write it because I’m still struggling with that myself. I have a rough map (currently stuck to the wall for easy reference), that I do fear is horribly unscientific.
    Clearly, I need to check your blog more often.
    Now that you’re on hiatus…

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