Map Making 101

by | Jun 3, 2016

Last Updated:
Mar 1, 2023

When I wrote Born of Water, I got as far as chapter 3 before I got lost. Well I should say the characters lost me. Because they were heading out of the one town I had visualized and created into the unknown on an adventure.

That is all well and good for a reader, but it sucks for the author.

Without knowing where they were heading, I had no idea what they would find or what to write. I kept feeling my way forward through the fog only to discover it took not only a LOT of time, each sentence a tentative step skirting a cliff’s edge. But everything sounded the same too. I kept recreating the first town over and over with a few tweaks. It was a really boring trip.

I happen to write epic fantasy, where every novel tends to have a map stuffed in the front of the book. I also happened to be working a job at the time where I created conservation maps frequently. And conveniently, I have an art degree. Aha! I could make a map. ๐Ÿ˜‰

That job wasn’t just conservation, it was working with farms. And over a dozen years of that, as well as an ecology degree, taught me a world is shaped by its ecosystems. What we eat, how and if we farm, what daily obstacles need to be overcome, and how we create rituals stems from the world around us. From weather patterns to seasons, a world shape cultures adapted to survive in that specific environment.

If I wanted to create obstacles and cultures unique to my novel, I needed to first create the world (cue inspirational music).

With that in mind, which I admit is a lot, I set pencil to paper. Literally. I started with a mechanical pencil, a good eraser, and a sheet of printer paper.

And that is why I’m writing this post. I’ve seen other fantasy authors seeking someone to create a map for them. Maybe for a novel that is a good idea, but you might surprise yourself with what you can create. And if you do hire an artist for a very pretty map, having a base one to go from is awesome. No matter how well you can describe your world, nothing beats seeing it drawn out. Which is why all those fantasy novels include maps (on top of 100,000 words of description)!

Map Making 101 - Build your fantasy world!

Step 1 – Create Scale

You probably have an idea for a town already and maybe vague thoughts about where the next village is located or the capital. Great. Now think about the climate of that place. Is it tropical or is it temperate? What are the seasons? If it were on earth, in what band of latitude would you place it?

Depending on how big of a world you are going to draw (are you making a globe or just a localized area?), consider how far your characters will travel. Do you want them to cross deserts, jungles, jagged mountains with snow and plummeting caves, lush coastal cities, or endless forests? Or all of that?

Sure, you could pack a huge variety of ecosystems in one small area, but it will be tough to have it make sense. Maybe you aren’t concerned or can have magical havoc acting on the climate, but having a landscape that is explainable is nice even outside of science fiction. So consider how big of an area you are about about to create and either get a bigger piece of paper, tape a few pages together, or be happy you have only a small area to develop!

Step 2 – Water

Have you noticed that the oldest and most productive cities are near water – either a coast or a river? Access to water for drinking, as a power source (milling), irrigation, and movement of goods is important to the development of a location. Unless your world is highly advanced (far future scifi) or has a unique method for overcoming this typical settlement barrier (aqueducts and levitation), start with your first location/chosen city and decide how close it is to a river, lake, or an ocean. Now draw it in.

Whatever you choose, continue that line. If it is a river, follow it to the outlet and draw along the coast. Where is the next river or sheltered bay? Are there islands? Outline the major water features of your world to define the land, including peninsulas, estuaries, lakes, and archipelagos.

Step 3 – Locate towns

With the water resources created, or if you didn’t need to worry about this option, it is time to locate the other towns. First decide what is the major method of travel? If it is by horse, small towns or outposts will be a day’s ride from each other. Big cities might be several days away. Walking would be the same. If people travel on foot through a thick forest, overnight shelters and woodland camping might be common. But main paths would host at least a cluster of houses at a day’s walk or where ever a crossing stream makes a settle-able location.

If goods can be shipped by a river, towns will be located at safe locations downstream and upstream, as long as the water is deep enough to be navigable even if it is by raft or canoe (or slightly more advanced with dredged canals). Towns are often situated where rivers enter lakes and streams – these will control the access of the entire river as well as profit from the switch of commerce from stream to sea. For both lakes and seas, big towns will be located where there are safe, deep harbors.

Step 4 – Food

I’ve hinted at this, but another reason big cities are not right on top of each other is that you need to feed everyone. Which means farmland, foraging, hunting, or fishing. Unless this is a city where everything is brought in, which could mean far future space shipments to a mountaintop refuge where stores are kept in caves, food has to be grown or caught. Everyone needs to eat. So unless this is a society that can live off of moss and mushrooms, that awesome mountain castle needs a food source. And it isn’t going to be dairy cows. Maybe goats, but not cows unless you have some of the weirdest cows in fantasy land.

Societies advanced to the equivalent to our Grecian era and beyond will have some level of farming (unless something dire happened along the way…). The Inca as well as early Chinese cultures farmed in terraces even high in the mountains. Nothing is impossible (not even a green house in Antartica … but it is difficult) leave land between large cities for growing food.

If this is a hunting society, the space between large towns will be greater, because those animals need room to live and Graze. Plus foraging for woodland plants does not have the same productivity as a planted field. If you are in a desert, make sure there is an oasis (see step 2 – water).

Double check where you marked cities and towns. Is there enough space between them to feed people? If not, is the city located on travel routes to have sufficient trade to make up the difference? If yes. Good. Keep it. Name it! But if not, move it somewhere else … or make it a ruin (or a city falling to ruin and chaos! Bonus point!).

When map making you have to consider resources like agriculture

Step 5 – Consider weather

You might be noticing that a lot of these steps interlink and affect each other. Step 1 talked about scale and how that is dependent on climate. Well agriculture is dependent on weather as well as water. So look at the climate and location variables to double check if agriculture is possible. Does it rain enough? If not, is the river/lake big enough for irrigation? Heck, is it warm or have sunlight sufficient to grow plants. Even animals need to eat plants, so a meat based society is NOT an answer for lack of growing things. It just means you need something graze-able (really thick moss?).

Now is the time to consider seasons be they winter/summer or monsoon/dry. Would this alter any town locations or the ability to live there? It might make it more favorable. It could mean you need to rethink locations, trade, and supplies. That mountaintop citadel now needs a supply of fur coats and wool for winter clothing.

You don’t have to build an entire food and produce spreadsheet, but a quick run-through of logistics will eliminate glaring errors that will have readers rolling their eyes. And then pointing them out to you. Ouch.

Step 6 – Add typography

So now you have a network of travel ways between towns, coastlines, rivers, and lakes. You know where there are fields, forest, and desert. What about swamps? Where are the swamps? And mountains. They usually come in ranges. Same with hills. Are there a lot of hills somewhere? Are there rolling grass lands peppered with springs? Or an area so flat the rivers meander like lost snakes?

Draw in the landscape beyond what you’d need to create mini-civilizations. You don’t need to impact the precious cities and their farmlands you just created, but add in the volcanoes, bogs, plateau’s, and cliffs in the blank spaces between. Consider that large rivers, mountains, and even lakes can divide territories. Are you creating barriers that might designate new countries or kingdoms?

When you have the typography filled in you have what should look like a map of your world. Which is great! But we are not done …

Step 7 – Go beyond the map

Look at a town. What would the people living there in those conditions be like? What traditions would they hold? What would their day be like? What is the most important day of the year? Imagine standing there. What would you hear and smell?

If the world you created is vast, the answers to those questions will change. If it is small, there may be a few regional differences.

Consider too those resources like farming, fishing, hunting game as well as ones we didn’t discuss: wood for fires and building ships, metal for swords. What is valuable in each region? Who is lacking resources? Do they trade? Do they want to go to war? Or did they battle years ago and now an area is under a foreign queen’s control?

What did this exercise get you?

A nuanced world unique to your story. Including new hardships for your characters to overcome. You might never have thought of the swamp they needed to cross, or the pass, or what it would be like to ride through ordered farmland after crossing the mountains while barely surviving for days. But now you have that in front of you and can navigate the journey. You can even see why they get lost when told to follow the left fork in the river, because they follow a stream by accident. Which leads to problems, of course!

Plus cities and towns have a history and flavor that exists in your mind before your characters enter it. Maybe only a few lines of description about the strange culture of this town will make it into the story, but those words will be fresh and new. It won’t be the same forest through the entire novel. Or the same city repeated ad infinitum. The reader might not fully notice every change. But, just like in life, the little startling bits of newness will refresh their senses and keep them involved in the story and not merely skimming the words.

I know when I finally drew my map and created towns peopled with unique cultures based on the ecosystem in which they lived, my story popped. Not just in my mind, but to readers. And with a map, I could finally chart the journey where the four main characters were headed. And who they’d meet. Which led to all sorts of new possibilities. Like what the Temple of Dust really looked like …! Heck with the reader’s reaction, I was surprised. ๐Ÿ™‚

What you draw might not be Rembrandt’s version of your world. But if it helps you write a better novel, draw it. If it isn’t bad, clean it up, add some color (or not) and use it in the book.

I ended up painting mine – at a larger scale than printer paper. It isn’t perfect in my eye, but that’s okay. It allows you to enter my world.

Have you made a world map for your story? Did it help you create new features for the journey?

Leave what you’ve learned in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!




Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn is a best selling indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently settled in the wilds of Maine with her small dragonish dog and husband, searching for a portal to another world.

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  1. Jan Hawke

    Just awesome, Autumn – all bookmarked for future ref! ๐Ÿ™‚ I have a similar art and graphics background to you (though not with the farms), so I approach my own map-making in a similar way, with climate taking most of the lead on a terra-formed world that is having the tail-end of an Ice Age but with some desert-forming starting. Kudos to you for some wonderfully exotic maps ๐Ÿ˜€

    • Thanks, Jan! Your world sounds equally incredible. Having the history of an ice age would add so much to the climate, changing local environments, and migrating animals. What fun to add to your world! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. chapmanjeff

    Great post, Autumn. So much to think about. The books I won in your giveaway are definitely being put to good use. : )

    • Hi Jeff!

      So great to see you here! ๐Ÿ˜€ Glad you liked the post and even happier that you are liking the books you won. It is so great to meet fellow authors. Can’t wait to see what you write!


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