The Map

I should warn you that today's exercise may take more than 15 minutes. I'm still working on coloring the large-scale map of a world I used 2 years ago, but the small-scale map only took about an hour.

Today is the day you get out your pencils and paper and start to draw The Map.

The non-graphically inclined, I'm sure, are about to run screaming into the streets, but please wait! You are not alone! Map-making is hard work. It takes patience, dedication, and a complete inability to draw a straight line.

What's that you say? You say you can't draw a straight line to save your life? Well, step right up, because you can draw a map of a non-existent world!

Nature has very few straight lines and even fewer right angles. Maybe that's why humans like to put them in our man-made artifacts so much! Nature is full of wiggly lines and curves and wobbles.

By now, you have a general idea of what you want in your planet or world. You have a list of climates and some big features you're going to put into the world.

You might even have a general map sketched out. I usually start with something like "I want the desert area over here, and an island chain close enough by to travel from desert to island and back again in the story." I might make a map that has basic quadrants, maybe even a loose collection of groups of people who I'm putting into the story. If you don't have this sketch, do one now. Make big ugly circles if you have to to indicate where something is.

Now, it's time to get a little more specific, a little more concrete.

I use a few methods for fleshing out my maps. The first and easiest method is what I call the "cheating from Earth" method. I took a geography class in college where a student had made a poster out of a map of a particular island nation and had put it up on the wall of the classroom. Every person who remarked on the island said "Wow, that's a good map of Cuba." If they got close enough to read the legend, they saw that it was a map of Japan, but rotated so that North was not at the top of the map.

Americans are so used to seeing north on top, you can rotate almost any land mass and change its scale and suddenly, you are the best map-creator in the world. I use Goode's World Atlas and tracing paper. Place the tracing paper over a likely-looking map and trace around the feature I want to copy. I've turned Earth lakes in South America into continents, just by copying the shape but altering the scale, orientation, and composition (reversing it from being a mass of water into a mass of land).

If you are short on time, you can really cheat by going to any topographical map website (USGS sells their data, but you can find topo maps elsewhere, too), and print out and paste together your maps.

When I run out of good subjects from existing maps, I turn to the rest of nature. I find that tracing the outline of a leaf onto my map and then sketching in the veins of the leaf gives me some truly phenomenal mountain ranges, complete with rivers and streams (the leaf veins). Arrow-head shaped leaves provide more hilly ranges, while maple leaves give you some beautiful "rocky" formations. Look at the palm of your non-drawing hand. The lines of your palm can become rivers, topographical lines, or even roads.

Roads? Yes, roads! As you draw your map, look for places where people would settle. Remember that nobody builds a settlement far away from fresh water-- water is life, so look for rivers as your earliest settlements. Water is also transportation, trade, and can serve as defense. Hills make good natural defensive structures as well-- a hill surrounded by water is one of the earliest natural fortress.

Rivers often flow through valleys, and the flooding of the river is a good source of nutrients for farmland, so watch for where your civilizations' food will be grown, and remember that those places are hugely important to the major political forces in your story. Remember: an army marches on its stomach!

I have a joke I like to tell that I got from my geography professor in college. An area starts out as a lake, turns into a wetland, then a swamp, then a bog, then a meadow, then a condominium. As sediment builds up in an area of immobilized water, the waterway gradually transforms into solid land, which humans then seize and build upon. Since the space was originally a waterway, though, what do you think happens if a meteorological event brings the water back in force?

The Exercise:

So, today's exercise is to draw out the physical contours of your map, and then identify at least three places that your people might live. You don't need names for them yet-- we'll worry about names next week, when we give our people language. Just draw a dot on the map or maybe sketch a little "house" symbol to indicate that people have settled that area.

Comment from Holly Ingraham:

My one quibble here is that you can't be arbitrary with deserts. Look at our one and only example, Earth. If we grossly simplify things, just for guidelines:

Pretty much, you find deserts on western coasts as the cold currents start to curve away from land at the equator. That includes those of SoCal/Mexico, Spain/North Africa, western Australia, Peru, and the Thar Desert of India. The opposite corner of a continent will be in the tropical storm zone: monsoons of India and SE Asia, the hurricanes of the Caribbeans.

The other time you get natural deserts is when the area is too far inland from the rain-bearing air currents, especially in the rain-shadow of mountain ranges. You see this both in the western deserts of the US, in the shadow of the Rockies from the west and the Gobi of Asia, also in eastern Africa and the Near East that are in the rain-shadow of the Indian ranges. Central Asia is dry because it's just too far from the sea, the rain source, and lacks many rivers (for the same reason).

So your islands close to the desert should be off a west-equatorial corner, and when you build a gigantic super-continent twice the size of Eurasia and Africa together you have to remember that most of it's going to be like Uzbekistan, not Ireland, for climate.

[My background is geology, historical geology, and paleoclimatology. Climate revealed in flora and fauna can tell you something about where a land-mass was at the time. So we look for these guidelines.]

Holly Ingraham is one of the moderators of Other Worlds Writing Workshop, and an excellent author and mentor for genre writers!