I’ve been a Fantasy reader pretty much all of my life, but I’ve never been enamoured of maps. It isn’t that I have trouble reading them; I’ve travelled many real places relying on the navigation of accurate maps and find them very useful. However, a map of an imaginary place in the beginning of a new book is fairly meaningless to me until I’m well immersed in the story and the occasional glimpse back at the map at the front can provide perspective on where places relate to one another.
Even then, I’ve often held the opinion that lazy writing is what makes the image necessary, even though maps characterise the epic tales from such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.
I’m having to think again about that. The reason is a short story I wrote for an anthology, Dreamtime Damsels & Fatal Femmes. The title is The Wizard’s Quandary and it’s about a female Alchemist, Lesana, who serves a despotic king and is very aware of the dangers that accompany her precarious position.
When kingsmen appear at her remote tower demanding to confiscate her Alchemical equipment and books, she is grateful for the good sense that made her long since prepare for just such an eventuality. If the king has decided to perform his own Alchemical experiments, her fate could only be an unwanted marriage or death when it all goes wrong and he blows up the lab.
Apart from the dire consequences to herself, her best friend and companion, a miniature dragon named Khadri, would certainly be taken from her for the king’s notorious collection of oddities. There is no question that it’s time to leave, albeit on a dangerous quest.
The story has a satisfying conclusion, yet it demanded of me that I provide more. Lesana and Khadri have more adventures awaiting them and I made the decision to spawn a new Fantasy world for them to pursue their exploits. It didn’t take long to work out that I would have to expand on the terrain already provided and create a much bigger landscape than the short story required.
The Wizard’s Quandary begins in a remote tower, where Lesana practices her craft far enough away from the kingdom to require some travel for supplies, but providing her the isolation she needs to work unhindered. We learn of a dense forest just beyond the tower and a stark mountain range rising at the end of the tree line.
All of this suggests that there must be other kingdoms somewhere and that the mountains range far enough to create a significant barrier to ordinary travel. The dragons are also an impediment, but let’s stick with terrain for the moment. My previous Fantasy books have been set in real places, albeit changed from an alternative history perspective or set in a future after a cataclysm. Starting from scratch is a new experience for me.
So, a book (or series) length epic saga is going to require at least a continent with villages and cities as well as many natural features and probably some subdivisions of territory to mark the borders of one kingdom from another. Rivers are often natural separations for different lands.
Rather than try to imagine so much terrain and keep it straight in my head for what could turn out to be a multiple volume series, I’ve accepted that it’s time to draw a map. Once I’ve done that, developing cultures within the various subdivisions becomes a much easier task.
That brings us to actually drawing the map. What will my continent be shaped like? Will there be islands? How far apart will cities and villages be located? Shall I have a major river where most settlements would logically be built near the source of water?
Most of the details of how my terrain will look are still in planning stages, but I did decide that the mountain range near Lesana’s tower will have to form a massive curve as if an ancient asteroid strike formed the rough edges. I do have a reason for that but it’s too early in the project to explain. In the meantime, I’ve found a few useful online resources for map drawing. Many of those I found on a search are directed at gamers for making D&D or similar game terrain when what I’d really like is something like Tolkien’s map, but lacking drawing skills, I’ve found a few sources that Fantasy writers can potentially work with.
These are all free, or at least have free versions. I’ve tried a few early experiments, but despite being a devoted pantser when I’m writing, creating my map is going to take a lot of thought and planning. After all, places and features I include now will give me territory to work with in further volumes. Lakes can become magical lakes, interesting characters from different lands can enter the stories, any number of possibilities can be set up by developing a feature on a map.
So far the above programs have given me views closer in than I feel I need to get a full picture of my new land. I may need to get a shape for a continent from one of them and either draw or Photoshop the finer features in from another. The features I’ve cited already will certainly be included and it will be interesting to see what new story inspirations arise from this exercise.
What about you? Do you like maps in Fantasy Epics? Is knowing the direction to Mordor part of your Fantasy reading experience? How many Fantasy readers will find their way here?
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