Quick map I sketched out to use as an example for this post. The features are depicted decently for personal use, but it isn't very legible and it isn't scaled at all. Still, it's enough to let me know where features are and what they're called.

In my last post, I mentioned how helpful maps can be when writing. Because I feel so strongly about maps, I decided to write a post focusing solely on the creation and use of maps for stories. If you have been on the bench about using a map with your story, if you want to create one but aren’t sure how, if you haven’t considered this idea before and want to learn more, or if maps just interest you, as well, read on. This is a long post, which means a lot of people won’t take the time to read it all. So, I broke it into sections you can easily scroll through to find what you’re looking for.


Why you should use a map

Maps can help you stay on top of all the place names and geographical features in your story and where they are in relation to one another. If you take the time to create one before writing, it may also help you better plot out each character’s journey, so youre less likely to get turned around. In addition to this perk, some planning beforehand will enable you to equip your characters properly—or improperly in order to increase the peril. Furthermore, maps can help you scale your world so you can more easily keep track of distances you mention in your story. 

If you decide to publish the map, it may improve your readers experience, as many readers love having a map available to help orient them while reading. I’m one of them. In some cases I think maps are an afterthought on the writer’s part, but I think they should be the first reference material a writer either finds or creates. If you have a solid reference to go on while writing, discrepancies such as unintentionally changing the name of a village or having a character head south after stating earlier on that their destination was north of them can be avoided more easily.


When to create a map

Those writing in certain genres such as nonfiction, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, literary or mainstream fiction, urban fantasy, or some sci-fi may not need to create a map. For almost any story based on Earth, there are maps readily available to reference. For sci-fi that takes place on Earth but in the future, you may only need to trace an already available map of the appropriate region and tweak it as needed. That is, if you feel you need a map at all. Perhaps your characters don’t go on an adventure where it’s important to note different directions and locations. Perhaps the setting is limited to a town. Though not altogether necessary, I would say maps are still relevant in these situations if visuals help you stay oriented in your story. I’ve even created small diagrams of fortresses and houses just so I got the layout right. If your story isn’t set on Earth or if Earth has changed drastically, I especially recommend creating a map. I always try to make one before starting a story, or at least before my characters begin their adventures, so I have it on hand while I write.


How to create a map

I’d like to start off by clarifying that I’m not a professional cartographer. I’m just someone who finds maps interesting and helpful. I enjoy creating them, but I’m not an expert and I can’t say whether my map-making practices are the best. In fact, I’m sure they’re not. But they suit my purposes, so I’ll share them with you.

In my opinion, there are three main methods you can use to draw the map. One: Wing it like I did with the Llamania map. Draw a blob—or multiple blobs depending on how many continents or islands your world consists of. Fill the blob(s) to your heart’s content in whatever way feels right to you, and then, if you want to make it look cooler, slap a line in the legend of the map and label it “scale.” If you want to get more technical, put numbers along the line to indicate the distance that line stands for, then use that scale when you write your story. This is the easiest way to create a map, but be wary of this method if you’ve already written about specific distances in your story. You must adhere to them or change them to fit with the map’s scale. Two: Set the scale first and use a ruler or grid to stick to that scale as you create your map. Three: Use a combination of freehand for areas not yet described in your story and a set scale for others. I did this with my last map when I revised it. To draw the areas already cemented in the story, I used a ruler so I stuck to my new scale. I have a good eye for judging distances once Ive already measured one, so I used freehand for the rest of the map.

The last two (mainly the second) are good options if you’ve already written scenes describing how far different places are from each other because the scale you use, if it’s accurate to your story, will help you stay true to those scenes. The second method is the one I probably should use, but it’s more time intensive, so I don’t. When I create a fresh map to publish with my novel, however, I probably will use that method, as I’ve finally found a good scale that works with my map. I should add that a scale may not always be necessary, such as in strictly ornate maps or if you only care to keep track of places, not distances as well.

You can draw your map on graphing paper to help get the measurements right, or you can use regular paper. Include a ruler if you dont have graphing paper but intend to stick to a scale. If you have a graphics tablet or other digital device on which you can draw, you can create your map that way instead. I found this to be better than using pencil and paper because mistakes were easier to erase and the software I used (Krita, though I’ve also used Microsoft OneNote to create blueprints of dwellings, as shown in the picture below) allowed me to pull up a ruler or a grid as needed. I also had access to a host of brushes, so I could create the effects and designs I wanted without having to use more than one tool. If your map will only be for your use, it doesn’t need to be any more detailed than you want it to be. It just has to be functional. If you’re going to publish it, though, it should be more refined and engaging.

I don't know why but I made this so all the doors opened outward. I'll just pretend that's a quirk of that house.

You can take a look at different maps of Earth to get ideas for your own map, or you can find inspiration in the maps other authors have included in their books. Different artists depict natural and artificial geographical features in different ways, so find a way that works for you and your story (but do not plagiarize anyones work). For example, you may choose to use triangles to represent mountains or slanted lines to represent grasslands. Or, if you’re using colors, you can simply assign each feature its own color. If you’re writing a fantasy novel set in a time period comparable to an era on Earth, it can be inspiring to view maps from that period to get a feel for the style used. I enjoy perusing antique maps, especially from the Renaissance. Many older maps were created with a lot more detail in the way of fantastical elements and various designs, and I find them very inspiring.

When you’ve decided on the method you want to use, readied your materials, and taken a look at some references, decide whether your world will conform to the same or similar natural laws as Earth does. This will influence the placement of different regions. Also, decide whether you want to create a map of the whole world or just of a particular region. Even if your story only focuses on one region, it may help you to create a full world map first because it will allow you to better see how and where that region fits in the big picture. From here on, I’m going to assume that your world will conform to the general laws that govern Earth, even if just loosely.

Now, determine where the hottest and coldest points of the world are. If you’re creating a world similar to Earth, the coldest points would generally be at the poles and temperatures would rise the closer to the equator you get. This will help you choose and place the geographical features you desire. For example, it wouldn’t be logical to put a tropical rainforest near the northern pole unless some magic system allowed that to be possible. It helps to research different biomes and learn how they fit together. Studying other maps should give you an idea of this, but don’t hesitate to take the research further if you aren’t sure about something. For example, for my last map, I wanted to include a desert in the more temperate northern region of the world. I thought this was possible, but I wanted to make sure, so I learned more about temperate deserts and how they were formed.

After filling out the terrain, it’s time to add the cities, towns, villages, and whatever other man-made features you want to include. You may desire to make a map only of such artificial features. If the terrain doesnt hold any prominence in the work, you’d probably be able to get away with excluding it from your map without a problem. Otherwise, you should still include the terrain in the map to keep track of it all. If you’re having trouble choosing names for any of your features, you can take inspiration from this world. We usually name things based on who supposedly discovered them, important local features, appearance, etc.

Finally, create a legend. There’s some debate about the difference between the terms “key” and “legend” today, but as I understand it, the key is the section that explains what different symbols used on the map mean and the legend is the area on a map that holds the scale and the key. Include a key if you used symbols on your map that need clarifying. I usually include my compass rose in the legend because it looks neater to me, but that isn’t typical. Wherever you choose to put it, the compass rose is important to include so you know how your map is oriented. You should create the map so that north is up, south is down, east is right, and west is left. This is the typical orientation. You can change it around if you want, but that may be confusing.


Mistakes to avoid

Again, I strongly urge writers to map out their worlds before writing and then refer to that map regularly. However, if you don’t use a map, you should list all the important locations and how they relate to each other in terms of distance and orientation on a separate page so you can limit discrepancies. This is also helpful if you later decide to create a map or commission someone to create it for you. Before I started adding a scale to my maps, I used to record distances between places on a piece of paper. If a character stated that a certain town was so many miles from another, I made note of that in case I had to bring it up again.

Another mistake to avoid has to do with scaling. As I mentioned above, if you’ve already written your book, be careful about what scale you select while creating a map because it must align with the distances you set in the story. If you state in the narrative that City Y is X amount of miles from City Z, the map should likewise show the cities X amount of miles from one another, or vice versa if you have a map on hand when you start writing. On your map, you’ll have inches (or centimeters) to work with, not miles, so you need to ensure each inch matches whatever distance you use in the book. For example, on one of my maps, I set the scale so that every inch equaled two hundred miles. I created it before writing the story, but I later revised the distances in the story and thus had to revise the map. Now each inch equals one hundred miles, and this is accurate for my new descriptions and has worked much better for me as I continue to write the story.

One more easy mistake to make is creating a map that’s hard to understand. Make sure the names on the map are legible and correspond with the appropriate locations, and if you fill in the map with mountains or other geographical features, make sure each one is distinct from the other. I once created a map where the mountains and conifer forests were indistinguishable. That was horrible to work with, so I encourage you to not repeat my mistake. All of these points are especially important if you intend to include the map in the published version of your book, but even if you only want to keep it for your personal use, it needs to be legible and clear, at least for you.

Mistakes should be avoided wherever possible. When a map isn’t done right, it shouldn’t be included in a published work at all. If you decide to include a map in your story after writing it, take pains to ensure its accuracy. I love following a character’s progress on a map as I read, and I’ve noticed many other readers do, as well. That becomes nigh impossible when the map and story just don’t match up. It’s very confusing, and the work as a whole automatically appears sloppy and rushed.


Where to keep your map

Keep it where you can easily access it. I did something moronic with one of the earlier maps I created. Instead of putting it somewhere I could pull out at the drop of a hat, I filed it away. Why I did this, I’m not sure, but I’ve learned from my mistake. Now I keep a picture of my map . . . as my desktop background. Seriously. It’s great. All I have to do to view it is minimize whatever I’m working on. It’s also a “low-key” reminder to get back to my story if I sign into my laptop without Word already open, and it’s pretty inspiring, too.


And that’s the last bit of advice I have for you at this time when it comes to maps. Hopefully I was able to offer you some helpful information here. If you’re a cartographer or someone else with experience in creating maps for stories, please comment with what you thought of this post and any advice you have. Of course, feedback is welcome even if you dont have experience making maps. It’s hard to improve without it, and I love hearing from people (well . . . most people, anyway😉).