Cartography for Writers: How to World Build a Fantastic Map

I’ve talked about world building before, but let’s talk cartography for writers, shall we?

The Dragonics & Runics Series was always blessed by a good cartographer, but it took quite a bit of world building before I could even give it to her.

There are basics that every writer knows, especially those who are fans of sci-fi/fantasy books.

  • You know there are going to be mountains and rivers.
  • You know that there will be an ocean or two and some forests and deserts.

But there’s more than that. There’s a lot more to it than that and, if you overlook such things, you’re going to come off as haphazard and amateurish to the well-trained genre-loving eyes of a reader.

So, you’re going to need to go native, so to speak, and really dig into your world.
How? World Building!

There are many amazing resources for how to world build in regards to maps, but I thought I’d add my process to the pot. So, here goes!

Let’s look over what a solid map for your world requires.

For each land mass you will need to decide…

1. Name of Land Mass

– Proper name

– Nickname

2. Type of Land

– Continent or country or state? Think size here.

– Any distinguishing features/formations?

3. Description of Territory (be super specific)

Oceans? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Warm or Cold currents?

Plains or Grasslands? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

Swamps? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Fed by which rivers?

– Lead to which oceans?

Mountains? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Volcanic?

Lakes? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Fed by which Rivers/Streams?

Rivers? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Feed which Rivers?

– Drain to which Ocean?

– Any waterfalls? Where at?

Forests? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Type? (deciduous, tropical/jungle, evergreen, etc.)

Valleys? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Name of surrounding hills?

– Surrounded by which mountains?

– Include which water source? (river/lake/springs)

Deserts? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Boundaries?

– Is there an oasis?

Ice-covered Areas? N E S W NE SE NW SW Central Other:_________

– Name(s)

– Type(s) (tundra, glaciers, etc.)

– What areas are really popular & well-known?

– What areas are really remote & known only by locals? Why?

– What areas are undiscovered?

– What areas are ancient? Are there ruins? Why’d they leave?

4. Overall Climate

– Then, include specifics for certain regions. For example, is the desert never below 100 degrees?

– Sky and weather trends/patterns?

– Anything special about the clouds? star constellations? sun(s)? moon(s)?

5. Flora & Fauna

– Think trees, grass, flowers, bushes. Remember to use an anchor in Earth, and go from there.

– Same with the animals. List what is there in common with Earth, and then come up with unique creatures or creatures with slightly different traits.

6. Water Types

– Specifics to colors? type?

– Is there something special about these bodies of water?

7People, Creatures & Populations

– Concentrations where?

– Who or What lives there?

– How many?

8. Threats

– Are there any?

– To the land? Creatures? Environment?

– Who and/or what?

9. Cities/Capitols

**remember, you’ll need more details on these later, but right now, think big – map sized – picture**

– Names (include names that are special to your world, but not too crazy-different to understand or remember)

– Locations on the maps (look at cities/capitol locations in world history for ideas–they’re usually near water and some source of food)

– Distinctive Traits/Settings (ie. trade focus or specialty) that require map denotation. For example, if they’re a major trade route, you might want to draw out the trade route on the map. Or, if there’s a common meeting place, like a tavern, that should be denoted, too.

– Type of inhabitants – humans? otherwise? mix?

Remember, write and brainstorm everything down, but only include what helps tell the story with main locations/areas

Just because you have a Dirty Pig Tavern in City Y, doesn’t mean it is going to be on the map. Same goes for Farmer Steve’s Barn and Frank’s Armory. But the Ruins where a lot of secrets are discovered? Now, those should be on there…

Not everything in your story needs to go on the map.
Just the general areas and extremely important locations that repeat over and over and hold a paramount importance to the story and its characters.

When you’ve got it all down, sketch it out. Even if it is horrible and rudimentary, get it down on paper. Then, you can take it to a professional (or friend who’s really good at maps).

There are quite a few cartographers for hire out there outside of my darling cartographer @ Little Green Eyed Press — just take a look at the Cartographer’s Guild.

And, remember… when working with someone else on your project, the key to success is communication. Talk to them. Have all the facts and know all the answers to their questions and you won’t be disappointed.

And now, time to selfishly and giddily share my maps!

Detailed Dragonics & Runics World - Grayscale

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Detailed Dragonics & Runics World - Grayscale

For more information on LGEP’s cartography services, click here.
For more cartography/world building resources (though a bit old, they’re still some of my favorites), check out these two old school sites here and here.
To see these beauties in context, check out – DefianceAllegianceConvergence.
To buy these beauties, visit A.W.’s store, here.
Another good resource for finding cartographers is DeviantArt.com.

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