On Making Maps of Imaginary Places

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I’ve been working on a fantasy novel for the past few years. Adult fantasy, I guess you’d call it. Whatever that means. Anyway we’re getting close enough to publication that I’ve finally reached the point where I’m supposed to draw the map.

I guess I could have started with it, but to be honest I didn’t really know enough about the world yet — I had to go there and come back and then do the map. A lot of writers go the other way, like Tolkien creating the languages for the races in The Lord of the Rings before he wrote the actual book. (I don’t know for sure if he did that or not, but if he did do that, it would be like that.) I once met Christopher Paolini, and he told me he drew the map of Alagaësia before he wrote Eragon. (He said that when he drew the Beor Mountains he didn’t mean to make them that big, he had just messed up the scale by accident. Then he decided that it was cool to have ultra-giant mountains, so he left them that way.)

I’m a word guy, not an image guy. I can’t draw at all. I think I was born without whatever neurons are supposed to connect your eye to your hand. So I’m making an artist friend of mine do the actual drawing. But I’ve been trying to draw him a basic sketch first so he can see roughly where everything is supposed to be.

Fantasy Cartography is a great source for this, because they have all the great maps on tap. Narnia and Middle Earth, natch — it’s funny how much alike they look, cartographically speaking (though for some reason you can find maps that put Cair Paravel on the east coast and others that put it on the west coast) — but also Westeros and Newhon and Alagaësia and Greyhawk and whatever world the Wheel of Time stuff happens in. When you start thinking about this you realize how awesomely radical it is that instead of just drawing another continent, with rivers and mountain ranges and a coast or two, Ursula Le Guin made Earthsea a kind of shattered archipelago — it looks totally different than any other imaginary world.

Cartography: I promise you, it’s not as easy as you think. I had a hard time just drawing something that didn’t look like America. Two lessons I’ve learned so far: you have to make the shorelines really wiggly, or they don’t look realistic, and you have to write really, really small. On my first draft I had room to fit about five topographical features before I ran out of real estate. My Artist Friend said he’s bought some special mapping pens. I think he’s going to need them.