Making Maps: Drawing a World

When it comes to map making, a lot of people balk. Either they feel it’s too artsy of an endeavour, or they think it’s a waste of time/energy, or perhaps they even think that maps are unnecessary for the writing process.

Whether you require a map or not is really up to you, but I feel like for the vast majority of novels, the authors would have had to have a map of some sort as they wrote. Now, that might mean that they’re using Google Maps, or an atlas, or some other pre-made map of Earth. But it could also mean that they drew a map of their fictional world using pen and paper, or some sort of computer program.

I have yet to find a computer program that I like to use when making maps. I’ll use Paint.Net to edit and modify my maps, but I create them the old fashioned way on paper. Additionally, I like to use graph paper. You can get it in letter sized sheets/pads, or in oversized sheets/pads. Normally I draw my world maps on the oversized sheets, but they are difficult to scan because I have to do it in two or more sections. So for this tutorial, I’m going to use just regular, letter-sized graph paper.

(Note: if you dislike the look of the graph paper lines, don’t just dismiss using graph paper. It is a 5 minute process, tops, to remove the lines with Paint.Net or some other similar program)

Now, when making a map the first thing you need to do is figure out how big your map is going to be. Not just in terms of how much space it will take up on the paper, but what it will show (the whole world, a continent, a country, etc.), and what scale you are making it at. The scale issue is why I always draw on graph paper.

The world I’m going to be drawing is called Obroth and is a little larger than Earth. Earth’s circumference comes in at around 40,000km, while I made Obroth 42,000km.

fictional Obroth compared to Earth

Generally speaking, I try to make my fictional worlds as close to the size of Earth as possible. Just so I don’t have to worry about differing gravity, atmospheric changes, and other issues that arise when you start getting a lot bigger or smaller. How you pick your planet size can be entirely up to you, though. If I’m being completely honest, the reason Obroth is 42,000km around is because there are 42 full squares along the long side of my graph paper (with partial squares on either side). If I were using a bigger sheet of graph paper to draw the world, each square would cover less ground (likely 500km each, or less). The larger the map/smaller each square covers, the more detail you can put in.

Once you’ve figured out your maximum size (so if you were drawing a country, your maximum size would be one or two squares wider and longer than the estimated size), you need to start somewhere. I always pick a landmark, or some other area that I know has to appear on my map. This gives me a starting location, and somewhere to work out from. In this instance, I already have the map for an island/two countries drawn. So I shrink it down to scale, and place it on my world map. In the image below, you can see that I also included some distances. While I don’t normally write these things on the map itself, I will keep either a notepad nearby as I’m drawing, or write such notes outside the borders of where I’m drawing. They’re helpful reminders, so that as I add in more landmasses I can keep traveling times in mind. This is one of the reasons why having an actual map to refer to as you write can be so important.

Elgovina/Asdarant with some distance examples

You can see that my island is a tiny little blob on the map. It really puts the size of the countries on it into perspective. Prior to making the world map I was thinking that Elgovina and Asdarant were a decent size –Australia-sized maybe. Nope! That’s Hawaii. Maybe. On the one hand, that means that certain aspects of my story are going to have to change, but on the other, it explains the paradise-like temperatures and weather that they experience there.

Now that I have my “landmark”, I can start adding in extra details, based on how close/far I know other “landmarks” to be. For example, I know that it takes a couple months to reach another country by boat. Additionally, I know that a series of islands are only a couple of weeks away. With this knowledge, I can start placing rough outlines of other landmasses.

distances from starting point marked

You can see that I figured out my distances and drew semi-circles to mark where that would put things. With my distance guidelines in place, I started drawing blobs. It can feel strange to leave a lot of space between things, but remember that Earth is about 71% covered by water. That isn’t to say you can’t have a more land-intensive planet, just that it’s okay to leave wide oceans. Without counting actual squares, I figure Obroth is about 50-60% covered by water. Based on the image above. It may change as I get more detailed, but that’s roughly where we’re starting at.

Now that I have rough areas for continents/landmasses, I can start defining them better. A good way to start, is by adding in large bodies of internal (i.e., fresh) water. What about taking chunks out of the coastline for large bays? Any other small islands to be placed? These are the sort of things I think about as I get my map one step closer to completion. Oh, and I’m doing this all in pencil so I can erase unnecessary lines as I go.

temperature 'zones' marked

As you can see, I also made rough notes of temperature ranges. Again, these are notes for myself to help me keep in mind Earth equivalencies. I based them on a chart of average temperatures for Earth regions (based on January and July temperatures). But you can also see how the landmasses have changed from the rough outlining to this one.

From here, you can start adding extra details. Things like mountain ranges, large forests/jungles, deserts, and country borders. You should also start labelling things. I use a combination of symbols and labels to help me keep the map straight in my head. The symbols you use should be ones that make sense to you. There are standard symbols you can use (check out Making Maps: DIY Cartography for a good list of terrain symbols), or you can invent your own. Just be consistent, and make sure the symbols you use are going to be ones that you remember the meaning of.

Once you’ve got things where you want them to be, you can start using a pen to make them permanent. At the pen stage is when I add little flourishes to make the map feel more “real” to me. (Basically, I squiggle my lines so that they aren’t smooth/straight) Adding in the extra details is a pen level step for me, but then I’ve been making maps for years. You may want to pencil in your mountains and forests first, before you commit to them. It all depends on your level of comfort and experience.

starting to pen in the map

As I squiggle, I make minor changes to the lines I had drawn in pencil. Usually it’s just artistic flair, but occasionally it’s an accident that I just go with. Once I’ve gotten all my pen details down, I erase all the pencil marks. Because of the “zoomed out” nature of this map, I didn’t use symbols. Rather I used coloured pencil to differentiate different areas (like forest, plains, hills, etc.). Scanning, unfortunately, always leeches the colour out.

finished map

While Earth has 196 countries, Obroth only has 64. For being not quite 5% bigger, it has just under 33% of the number of countries. This means that the average size of a country is going to be a lot bigger, but it also makes it easier on the fictional world builder Of Obroth’s 64 countries, only 5 play a major role in the novel this world was created for. So while I have all these countries named and outlined, there are only five that I’ve bothered creating all the other information for. If future sequels require it, I certainly can and will come up with information for other countries, but it’s important to know what information is important, and therefore what information to spend your time and energy on when world building.

I’ll be taking another look at maps on January 28, with Making Maps: Country Details.


4 thoughts on “Making Maps: Drawing a World

  1. Pingback: Making Maps: Country Details | Scribbles in the Margins

  2. Pingback: Making Maps: A City of Wonder | Scribbles in the Margins

  3. Pingback: Why Should I Build a World? | Scribbles in the Margins

  4. Pingback: Can You Understand Me Now? | Scribbles in the Margins

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