Mapmaking Part 1
So you want to make a custom map! Pylon Bina here to lend their (hopeful) expertise on the matter.
Mapmaking is a great way to add physical context to your stories. Knowing where people are in relation to the world around them helps readers follow along the journey more accurately, ESPECIALLY if there are lots of events happening far away from each other. Tolkein’s books include maps to get you oriented around Middle Earth while multiple plotlines were happening, and C.S. Lewis had maps of Narnia and the surrounding countries so that “Calormen” and “Ettinmoor” weren’t just vague concepts to the reader.
Mapmaking is also a great mental exercise that brings together a lot of general knowledge, and will get you thinking about how your world works. By the end of mapping your world, you’ll have a much better grasp of your setting. Not to mention it’s an indispensable reference!
So, this tutorial will cover the all the different scales that you might need. Some of these are related and will be grouped together: world/region/country maps, and city/town maps. Since the tutorials are image-heavy, they won’t both be put together in this post, but linked separately.
Mapmaking Part 1a: Large-scale maps
Here we’ll go through the process of creating a large-scale map. All steps will be listed in order, but not all steps apply to the kind of map you want. For example, if you’re focusing on a country or province, skip the step about picking a map projection (unless your country is absolutely enormous).
STEP 0: STYLE
This isn’t really a necessary step for the beginning, but it’s best to think about it early. What kind of look are you going for? An old, parchment-style map? Something sleek and as informative as possible? Is it a reference only for you, or would you include it with your published material? The maps I’ll use for the tutorial are the old-looking parchment ones.
STEP 1: SET UP THE MAP
If you’re drawing a world map, you might consider picking a map projection. This gives you a border to draw in and adds some realism to your map. There’s a wikipedia page on map projections to look at (HERE). There’s some crazy ones out there. I went with the Winkel-Tripel projection (fun fact, National Geographic uses this projection for their all-world maps).
Then decide: How many continents? Do you have a Pangea thing going on? Or do you have 5-6 major land masses like Earth does? Is it all islands?
STEP 2: DRAFTING BORDERS
This is the fun part and most creative part, really. Here you’ll choose the location and general shape of your borders/landmasses. They might be the continent’s coastal boundary, or it could be a political border. Keep in mind that political boundaries have way more regularities in them than coastal boundaries do (for example, the boundary between the US and Canada has a long smooth portion in it).
Choose your shapes. They can be super vague, just get the general idea down. Consider completely random objects for inspiration if you want more irregularly-shaped landmasses/countries. Lumpy horse head? Rooster tail? Saggy boot? Go nuts. Here I used a lumpy upside-down arrowhead shape.
Special note on political borders: A lot of the time, political boundaries follow meridians/parallels (resulting in a smooth border), or natural formations such as rivers and mountain ranges. Keep this in mind when drafting.
STEP 3 (optional): REFINE SHAPES
If you feel your shape isn’t distinct enough, take your time and refine it. Add notches, lumps, carve chunks out of the edges, anything you want, until you’re happy with the overall shape. For inspiration, look at a real-world map and look at just how irregular and weird some countries/continents are in their shape. Don’t be scared to make something crazy! I mean, look at the broken-ness of northern Canada. Or the intense squiggles of Greenland. The thin-ness of Chile. Lots of weird stuff irl to remind you just how flexible you can be.
STEP 4: LINING (AND EMBRACING RANDOMNESS)
Ahh, the fun part. And the part that might take the longest. Lining/inking! If you don’t have steady hands or worry about making smooth lines, don’t fret! Coastlines (and to a certain degree, political boundaries) are filled with some shaky random nonsense. To get a border that really feels real, embrace that randomness and don’t bother with a steady hand. I purposefully let my hand shake and twitch to get that proper randomness. Make sure that you enlarge your sketch to be properly big enough for your map.
Note how I deviated from my sketch all over the place. The sketch is really just to give you an idea. I encourage straying from it when you want more interesting borders. I also added some random islands nearby.
STEP 5: MAJOR LAND FEATURES
Before you put your cities down, you need to get the lay of the land. Are there mountains? Rivers? Lakes? Deserts? Forests? If you have a climate already planned, reflect that on your map. You can either include them on your final map, or have it in a sketch somewhere (or on an extra layer in your art program) just so you know. Reference real world maps for help.
To actually draw these things, check out their representations on real maps or fantasy maps. It might be sections of color, different textures, or you can get artsy and throw down some triangles for mountains, clustered circles/scribbles for forests, etc. Just so long as anyone looking at the map can easily tell what’s what. !!! Include a map key if you have to !!!
Consider this: Lots of land features work in tandem. Rivers can originate from mountains. Air currents mean a forest might be on one side of a mountain range but not on the other. All rivers end in the ocean. All rivers flow downhill! Mountain ranges are BIG. Does a mountain range cut through multiple countries/continents?
Also consider: Do any land features make up a border to your country (if applicable?) Rivers are great for political boundaries.
This has been the first part of making a custom map; stay tuned for the second part (in which pylon Bina goes into adding the civilization part to your new landmasses) coming soon!