There’s one ability I wish I had from a small age: to draw. My drawings are incomprehensible and although some may call that art it’s hard to sketch something that you need to be precise. So if you’re like me and have the artistic skill of a gnat don’t be discouraged as I’ve soon learnt that there are workarounds for everything. This post will show you the workaround I found for map creating. Whether (like me) you need a map for a novel you’re writing or if it’s something else like a world for your latest DnD game, here’s how you can create a realistic map in six simple steps.
Step One – Collect maps
The first step is to collect some maps. Either for inspiration or to shape the image you already have in your head. Go to the site Roll For Fantasy Map Creator this is a really awesome tool that’s going to help with the basis of our map.
Scroll right to the bottom where it says ‘Change Map Size’. Depending on if you want a whole world or just an island will determine how you enter the following numbers. If you want a world, type in width: 20, Length: 15. If you want an island, flip those number: width: 15, length: 20. I’ll be creating an island in this tutorial. Now, of course, you can create a bigger or small world if you wish but I would advise against going any bigger. The reason why will be explained in the next steps.
Okay once you’ve entered your numbers, click just above that section on the button ‘Random Map’. A map should have been randomly generated on the board. Find a map you like the look of and scroll right to the bottom. There you should see a button that says ‘turn to image’. Click it. Your map should have been generated into an image (don’t worry if some squares are missing, these will not be our final maps). Right click the image and select ‘save as’. Save it somewhere you remember.
Repeat this process of randomly generating maps and saving the ones you like.
Out of the ones you’ve saved select around four that you really like. It doesn’t have to be the main island that you like the look of. There could be an interesting edge or island that looks cool. Keep it, save it, carry on. Here’s my four below.
Step Two – Cut them up, put them together
Let’s get creative! Out of those four islands that you loved, start destroying them. I mean just cut around them. It doesn’t have to be neat and do you remember how I said to keep a map if you just like a tiny isle? Well cut it out and put it near the main island you do. You may want to start looking at your maps from different angels as well, who knows a map upside down might actually be the right side up. Once you have all the pieces you liked out of your maps start arranging them together. You don’t have to use every map, out of the four I selected I used only three. Map 1 and 3 will create my main island and I cut up some interesting edges from the 2nd map to make my isles.
This step is optional but I would recommend you do it for a cleaner looking map. With your new map either scan it to your computer or take a picture and send it to yourself so you can print it off again. It’ll make sense why in the next step.
Step Three – Outline
Sharpen your pencils folks here’s the delicate part. This is the reason why I said you don’t want too big a map and why you may want to scan and print your map off again. You’re going to have to trace around your map, all those edges and crooks but don’t worry it really doesn’t take long. It doesn’t even have to take a steady hand because you know, map edges are rough. The easiest way to trace is to stick your map to a window (on a bright day) and stick a plain piece of paper on top as pictured below. The map behind is clear as day leaving you to trace easily.
Step Four – Scan, adjust and print
Phew. Halfway done. Yeah I know you have a big smile on your face now, congrats you have a map and hell yeah it looks awesome. Let’s make it even more so. Scan in / take a photo of your picture and send it to your computer. You may find that there are some things you want to change. To paint! That’s right the paint you used to mess about with when younger is here to save the day. It’s freeform crop feature will allow you to cut out pieces you’re not sure about and adjust them.
Here’s my map after my trace:
And here’s my map after I went into paint. As you can see I just rotated my main island and brought the smaller islands a bit closer. I’m not sure about you but this map screams fights of political power oncoming.
Step Four ½ (optional) – Re-outline
An optional step. Depending on what your map is for and how happy with the quality of your first traced map you may want to retrace after you’ve made some adjustments. (If you needed to make them in the first place). All I did was follow step two again and here’s my new map in all it’s glory. Almost.
Step Five – Add mountains and rivers
I’m not sure about you but I’m thinking my map is looking a little plain. Time for nature to take effect. Here’s the super easy way to add mountains and rivers that make sense which I learnt from Janloos over at Online Tabletop. If you want a scientific description about the earth and its layers go check the description over there. But I’m just going to show you the how rather than touch on the why.
The first thing you want to do is create some lines through your map. Now I know what you’re thinking. I really don’t want to trace this again (one reason to have a version on your computer to print). No worries, that version you still have on your computer? Open it up on you guessed it paint. Well, I actually used draw from Microsoft but it will do the same thing… allow you to draw lines.
Draw a couple of lines on your map like you see I did below. These will be your tectonic plates. Again if you want to know what those are check out the article linked above. The lines are where your plates meet.
Next step is to draw arrows. The arrows will signal which way your plates are moving.
Where your arrows meet are the plates colliding. Here is where the earth would create mountains. Where your arrows move away from each other is where rivers would form. Use a different colour for where your arrows are meeting and facing away. I chose red for my mountains and blue for the rivers.
Now go back to your map and start drawing in your newly formed rivers and mountains. With rivers, I just rubbed out some spots drew in some gaps. With mountains, I added some unclosed triangles. I also added some trees, which is where my forests would be. Ah, so much more interesting. Rivers, mountains and forests are a great way to divide areas, which leads us on to our next step.
Step Six – Add names
Names. The fun part. You may have had your names for your territories before you started your map. If not, don’t panic, there’s a lot of places where you can find inspiration. Take the names I have below for instance. Thraint right at the top, that’s just throne and paint blended together. You can also merge existing place names. Amerdia in the middle of the map is America and India. Or just use two random words together: Wizards Crook, Crystal Dream, now don’t they sound magical.
You could also use different languages. Take my island on the left. In Latin, primis tenerbris means dusk and aurora means dawn. Remember that rivers, forests and mountains have names too. At the bottom, you see ‘Fox River’ (yes, I’ve been watching too much prison break). Now I’m not saying you should name every river, mountain and forest but if there’s a river of significance, why not? And if you’ve run out of ideas bring out a compass. You see the mountains at the top of my map, you know what that’s called? North Thraint. It’s simple but it works.
A Realistic Map
And there you have it, our fully fledged map. Congrats. Remember you should never feel trapped by your own creativity. This map is not set in stone if you don’t like something change it. Yeah, you’re going to have to repeat some steps but it’ll be worth it. What you really need to think about is why you need the map in the first place. For me, I am writing a book about a quest that takes my characters throughout the map. I needed it to know their journey, the distance between locations, and if it was plausible in terms of the transport they have at their disposal.
Yet, if you look in a lot of fantasy books at their maps you will find that they zoom in only focusing on one area. For instance, your story may take place at the bottom of the map. What’s in Crystal Dream forest that a prince in Hanane and a thief in Tancridt wants? Or what about the island of Tenebris and Aurora? Have the treaties of dusk and dawn finally fizzled out? Or take Cauland. I wonder what happens over there on that tiny island. Once you know where your story takes place it’ll help you focus on what’s important.
If you are creating a map for a book, remember that it’s more than likely that if you get published it will be redone by a professional. So don’t stress about it too much, it should be used as a reference more than anything.
Do not, I repeat do not query your novel before you’ve written it. That is a huge no-no, why? Because agents and publishers need to see your work before they sign you, they don’t have time to just take your word that you’re writing the best thing to ever hit shelves. (Even if I totally believe you). I talked in my previous post about finding the #amquerying tag on Twitter before sitting down and beginning to write. I thought I’d share why I’m glad I found the trenches of querying before the adventures of writing and why I’d encourage you to do the same.
You already know the first step of publishing a book: getting it written, unfortunately, that is only the first step. Depending on how you want to publish your book there’s going to be a lot of other factors in-between writing and seeing your book in stores. If you’re heading in the traditional publishing route, you need to decide whether you want to bag yourself an agent or you’re going to pitch straight to publishers. For me, I plan to go the agent route. No matter who you choose there’s a couple of things that need to be thought about before, such as who.
There are plenty of agents out there all repping different genres, all looking for different things. I’m not saying to start a conversation with them now, “Hey agent, you know you’re looking for a middle-grade fantasy? Yeah, I have one that’s perfect for you… can you wait a year?” Probably not the best idea, but that doesn’t mean that while you’re scrolling through Twitter and you see an agent that is looking for a genre you’re writing or is promoting a book that is close to yours you can’t follow them. Create a list of the agents who look pleasant to you, so when the time comes you already know who you’d prefer in your corner.
The Querying Process
The other thing you can be thinking about is what you will send them. I know, I know, you send them your MS (manuscript). Actually, you only send part of your MS most likely the first ten pages or one chapter (it differs from agent to agent). What an agent will first see is a query letter or synopsis or both. A query letter is an explanation of the plot of your book but without giving away the ending. Kind of like a longer version of a blurb you see on the back of a cover. I would check out Query Shark if you want to know more about queries. A synopsis, however, encompasses everything including the ending.
Whether you’re pitching to an agent or a publishing house they’re going to want to look at either one of these before deciding to even take a look at your MS. Again, I repeat you don’t have to write these now. It would be rather difficult to write about the entire plot of your book without actually have written it. My point is the more you know about the querying process now, the less of a shock it will be when it’s time.
You know the great thing about mistakes? You learn from them. You know the great things about other people making mistakes? You don’t have to make them. Now that’s unfair, there are no ill wishes against my co-writers or authors. But… when an agent tweets tips that talk about authors using too many adverbs, or not pacing the plot properly, I’m gonna listen. There’s a big writing community on Twitter and that includes agents. Just because you’re still in the writing phase does not mean you shouldn’t congregate around #askagent #agenttip #querytip etc. When you know the problem you tend to look out for it, meaning less clean up when editing.
The reality is reality sucks. When looking through querying you’re going to find the good and the bad… a lot of bad. Not everyone is going to love your work. Thinking about this before writing may seem counterproductive but the more you write, the more you fall in love with your characters, settings, the story it hopefully won’t be too much of a blow when querying comes.
Try to understand the real reason that you’re writing. If it’s for fame and money then you may want to pick a different career. Not everyone makes it and the pay can be low. I’m not saying don’t be ambitious, I’ve already planned for Jude Law to be narrating the audiobook and can see the series of movies playing in my mind. Yet the thing I’m most excited about is people just reading my work. For my story to bring a smile to someone’s face. And if that’s all, if just one person reads my work and smiles, well I’m okay with that reality.
Plotter vs Pantser
If you ever stalk around the #amwriting tag on Twitter you may have seen a lot of acronyms used by the writing community that see you migrate into your inner Sherlock as you desperately try to figure out what is being discussed. I’m still convinced that PNR stands for pick nose right.
But there are some terms that are easier to understand (or should I say easier to look up). You may have seen some writers refer to themselves as either a plotter or a pantser and it’s super easy to identify which bracket you fall into.
Do you have to outline a story before you write?
Do you know exactly what will happen to each of your characters?
Do you write each scene in sequence?
If you answered yes to all of the above, then you’re most likely a plotter. Plotters plan out their entire story beforehand while pantsers, just pick up their pen or run to their keyboard and write whatever they’re feeling. If you want to learn more about these terms I would check out ‘The Pros and Cons of Plotters and Pantsers‘.
Becoming a Plantser
So I thought I was a pantser when I got my first super-duper idea I thought there was no stopping me, and for a while, there wasn’t. Until every writers’ nightmare: writer’s block. Not only did I not know how my scene was going to end, but I also didn’t know where I was heading towards. I knew how I wanted my book to end, and how I wanted to start but thought nothing of the middle. It was like having two slices of bread, good bread, freshly baked out of the oven bread, but there was no filling, I couldn’t even find a piece of cheese.
So I stepped back and stopped thinking about my WIP (work-in-progress) for a while. I was surfing the internet when I came across MasterClass. MasterClass is a hub where subjects are taught by the most successful people in their profession. I watched the trailer for all the ‘learn how to write’ classes and there were quite a few. James Patterson, Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood. (I also deviated and watched some others, I mean Steve Martin teaches comedy, yeah I’m watching). But again I just watched the trailers and yet every author talked about an outline. So, from a brief lesson from the greats, I started one myself. Creating an outline isn’t easy (for me anyway) but I learnt that I’m not a pantser at all, I’m a plantser. A combination of a pantser and a plotter.
So What Does a Plantser Outline Look Like?
I created my outline but it wasn’t incredibly detailed, just the scenes that connected a to b to c to d etc. It meant that if something came up, or one of my characters opened up a new scene I wasn’t trapped by it, instead it acted as my map. I could deviate away from the path but also easily find a new route back to where I needed to be. I did this with my current WIP and I will do it for my series Samael which I plan to post on the blog. Let me explain my steps:
Write down your scenes
If you were like me, you would already have certain scenes that you knew had to be in the story. Write them down. If you were like me, you had horrible ideas that definitely shouldn’t be in the story. Write them down. This isn’t the time to be picky, that comes later. For now, you just want to get your ideas on paper. When you feel like you can’t write any more, congrats you’re a fourth of the way to creating an outline. Here are some scenes of one girl trying to stop a robbery.
Put them in order
Okay, now be picky. Go through all your scenes and decide what you want to keep and what just isn’t working. (I would advise you to keep the ideas you think are terrible. You may think of an idea that sees a scene you thought as awful become one of your best, or once your a bestselling author you can dig them out and laugh at yourself). Once you’ve collected your scenes of gold, organise them in the right order. You’re creating a timeline. The way you organise depends on the person you are. Some like writing each scene on its own card, others bullet point in a notebook while I just used a good old excel spreadsheet. Each line is a new scene.
Fill in the gaps
Using Excel was great because it allowed me to move scenes around, and insert new ones, which is crucial for this part. Filling in the gaps. Unless you’ve been so thorough with part 1, it’s likely you have big jumps between scenes. I’m not going to lie, this part is tough. This was the hardest part for me. You’re going to have to think of more scenes and bridge the gaps. If it seems impossible, it isn’t, just step back for a day or two and clear your head. It’ll come.
Determine how you divide them
You now should have an outline. It may not be super detailed. It may not be perfect. I’m sure a plotter would look at my outlines in disgust but remember for a plantser, your outline is just a guide. You can follow it scene by scene but that doesn’t mean you can’t deviate when then mood strikes. I am nearly 11,000 words into my WIP and 90% are scenes I didn’t plan but they’re still heading in the same direction and they offer my book so much.
Another way to keep yourself going in the right direction is to divide your book. I didn’t use chapters. They stressed me out. I looked at all the numbers, “85,000 words for a ya fantasy, 4,500 words is an average chapter, so I need around 20 chapters, do I have enough scenes? What scene should go in what chapter? Maybe I should split this scene? Will there be enough to say if I split?” It. Stressed. Me. Out. Now that may seem so irrational to you but I felt that chapters were just too planny. So instead I broke my scenes into parts. It was great for allowing me to know the main plot point of each section.
For my current WIP, I ended up with 100+ scenes with only around 6 parts.
Don’t Listen to My Advice
So I’m a plantser, I need an outline but something that doesn’t cage me. You may be completely different. After reading my planning process you may think of it like hell, or you see parts you like and some you don’t. It’s ok. The best thing I did was find my own process, what other people were doing didn’t work for me, only when I got into my own flow did everything knit together. Everyone works differently, don’t get disheartened if you try a process that everyone swears by and it doesn’t work for you. So try the plantser method, try the plotter method, try the pantser method, create your own method. Although, if you do create your own, please make sure it begins with a p, we’re not savages.