I’ve finished my first revision of my first NaNo novel, Last Outpost, and now I’m starting the prewriting for the second one, From Under the Shadow. And you know what that means: it’s time to make some maps.
One of the very first things that S and I did when we first started planning the Quartet was to sit down and draw a map of the main kingdom in our fantasy world. I hand-drew it in pencil, and then later we scanned it in and cleaned it up a bit on the computer. To be honest, the borders and at least some of the geography are loosely based on a certain real-world country that shall remain nameless–a technique that has a proud history, apparently.
This sounds like cheating, and I suppose it is, but it helps beginning fantasy writers avoid serious geographical errors, like having rivers split or flow uphill. Just as with many other aspects of fantasy writing, if you copy real world geography, you know that if anyone complains that it’s unrealistic, you already have an example to prove that it’s plausible.
Most of our earliest computer map work was done in MS Paint–a truly grueling process. Then a friend online introduced us to GIMP.
It’s not exactly user-friendly, but it can do all sorts of things (once you figure out what menu or sub-menu to find them under), and there are lots of tutorials online.
If you’re very ambitious, or you just need some help with your basic geographical concepts, you really should check out the Cartographers’ Guild. There are lots of really talented and creative people posting their work there, and just poking around the forums is a great way to pick up tips on how to make better maps.
I should also mention that I really like the Donjon Fantasy Demographics Calculator. It can help you with things like how many cities and towns a country could realistically have, and how many people would live in those places. This is only indirectly related to making a map, of course, but it’s something to think about when you’re deciding where to put all the cities and how to connect them with roads, rivers, and canals.
Once you’ve got the basic outlines of your world, of course, you face the daunting task of naming all those blasted places. If you do NaNoWriMo (as everyone should), I recommend the Appellation Station threads in the forums there.
There are lots of great place name generators there (and some for people’s names, too). Some of the ones I’ve actually used in the past are the “Mithril and Mages Natural Terrain Feature Name Generator,” “Muddle’s Wilderness Place Name Generator,” and the “Pseudo-Elizabethan Place Name Generator.” That last one tends to come up with eccentric or humorous names, more often than not (some of which are unprintable). But hey, sometimes you need a funny place name.
Alternatively, you can try to assemble your own place names based on the naming conventions of some real-world culture. For example, here’s a list of generic forms–prefixes and suffixes and such–in UK and Irish place names.
Google Translate is also helpful here, of course. You can just pick a word, like “green” or “forest,” translate it into the target language that matches your fictional culture, and then add an appropriate suffix.
In any case, however you choose to do it, a map is really important in writing. It’ll save you from having a group of your characters march a hundred and twenty miles in less than three days–something I very nearly did by accident. And also, of course, it’s a lot of fun.