NaNoWriMo, Novels

Mapping Fantasy Worlds

When I’m writing a new story, one of the things I like to do is draw maps. For stories in our world, I track down maps made as close to the year where I’m setting the story as possible. For fantasy stories, I’ll draw entire countries or worlds. Usually the story idea comes before the map, but for the novel I’m planning to write during NaNoWriMo, the map came first.

"Mapping Fantasy Worlds" Writing Prompts and articles at
I decided to go with a fantasy story (instead of my dystopian idea) for NaNoWriMo. This is the first page of my outlines, character sketches, and ideas

My first thought was to set it in an entirely different world from my other fantasy novels, but then I remembered an entire unmapped country in Ves’endlera that would work perfectly for setting this novel.

"Mapping Fantasy Worlds" Writing Prompts and articles at
Kern, first draft

Most of my maps start out as quick sketches in notebooks. If I want them to be part of Ves’endlera, I’ll then add a more polished version to a Photoshop document. That makes it easy to edit when I have a new idea, and gives me a place to keep track of all the maps.

"Mapping Fantasy Worlds" Writing Prompts and articles at
Kern, Photoshop-version

When I’m first starting a map, I’ll usually look at Google Earth and find a coastline or two that I like, then borrow that. (My first map of Endan was traced from New Jersey, then turned on its side.) I also try to mimic patterns I see on the globe — where forests are located, how mountains affect surrounding geography, where do deserts form, and things like that. I want my maps to look realistic, even if they are not of “real” places. Maybe I should look into buying some cartography books and actually researching this properly.

I’ve also tried out a Fantasy World Generator, though I’ve never used the maps in a story. You can give the world a name, specify proportion of water to land, and decide whether or not you want geography, rivers, and towns generated as well. I’ve saved some of the maps I generated, and I can see how it would be a great resource if you didn’t want to draw a world yourself.

Do you map out your worlds before you start writing?

Creative Writing, Writing Resources

Naming Characters

"Naming Characters"

I collect names. I have lists of them saved in documents and occasionally floating around my desk on scrap pieces of paper. I name characters, children I don’t have yet, and try to come up with a “G-” name that seems to fit Callen in NCIS:LA.

Fantasy Names

For my fantasy novels, I tend to turn to Medieval Names Archive to find names that fit the time period and culture I’m basing my world building on. This website is great for euro-centric names, but it also has sections for Middle Eastern, Asian, and New World cultures. I haven’t used these sections much yet, but I hope to in the future.

For my finished novel The Heather and the Falcon (I started sending queries to agents last week), I pulled the names from this archive’s lists of early Celtic and Old English names. My main characters ended up with names like Aelis, Bryant, Artt, Cyrel, and Afraige. They seem different enough to fit a fantasy novel, but more authentic than some of the names you might find after Googleing a random name generator.

Name Meanings

One of the things I find most intriguing about names is their meanings. For example, “Maris” means “of the sea” and comes from Latin. I like to join my favorite names to make phrases out of their meanings. Most of the ones I come up with for potential children have Christian themes:

  • Christopher Hugh. “One who holds Christ in his heart, mind and soul”
  • Eliana Eileen. “My God has answered with light”
  • Shane Nicoli. “God teaches people of victory”
  • Liya Renee. “I am the Lord’s reborn”

When naming characters, you can choose names based on their meaning even if readers will have no idea that Jamen means “son of the right hand” and Aelis means “of noble kind.” In published works, I find it interesting that Cecil from A Room With A View by E.M. Forster means “blind.” NameBerry is a great website to search for specific name meanings.

The most important thing to consider in terms of name meaning, however, is avoiding names that are heavy with symbolism. For example, you probably aren’t going to be happy with reader reactions if you name an MC who is supposed to be a likable girl-next-door character Jezebel or Lilith. It could be used for comedic effect, but I imagine most readers would find that distracting/annoying.


Creative Writing, Reading

C.S. Lewis on Children’s Writings

By tracking down a quote on Pinterest, I came across C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children” (full text online here). Though I don’t write specifically for children, I like to think that my fantasy novels would appeal to (and be appropriate for) some young people. After all, I can’t be the only child who was reading Jules Verne by age 10 and searching for other stories of the fantastic.

The essay becomes most interesting to me when Lewis addresses the question of what kinds of stories are worth reading as children. Since he wrote children’s fantasy — not because he set out to write for children, but “because a children’s story is [sometimes] the best art-form for something you have to say” — he spends much of the essay defending fairy tales.

If I have allowed the fantastic type of children’s story to run away with this discussion, that is because it is the kind I know and love best, not because I wish to condemn any other. But the patrons of the other kinds very frequently want to condemn it. About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

Just as when Lewis was writing (in 1952), modern parents have been banning classic fairy tales. Hansel and Gretle and Little Red Riding Hood are not read because they are “too scary,” but there are other reasons as well. More than 50% of parents wouldn’t “read their kids Cinderella because the heroine spends her days doing housework. Many felt that this theme of female domesticity didn’t send a good message.” The politically incorrect word “dwarves” disqualifies Snow White from polite society. Rapunzel’s kidnapping and imprisonment is “too dark” a theme (actually, it is darker than they think — in the Grimms version she’s not actually kidnapped. Her father gives her to a witch to save his own life).

Whether or not to read fairy tales (and which ones to read) to children is a choice that will vary from parent to parent and also depends on the child. There are plenty of fairy tales I wouldn’t read to a very young or sensitive child (like The Little Mermaid, where she is in agony the entire time she has legs and dies at the end). But on the whole, I tend to agree with Lewis when he said,

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. …

It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

As a child who was deeply afraid of things that go bump in the night, I can wholeheartedly support Lewis’s claim that a “bright champion in armour” is a far better comforter than the police. And if my mind had not been filled with fairy tales, fantasy, and knights in shining armor I would never have dreamed up Jamen and Karielle or Bryant and Aelis (who now live in my  in-progress and finished novels) or invented Ves’endlara.

Which fairy tales would you read, or not read to children? As an adult, do you enjoy reading fairy tales?

Creative Writing, Novels, Writing Tips and Prompts

Building Worlds

Map of Endan
A map from my fictional world Ves’endlera

I’ll be taking off for an extended weekend soon, but I wanted to post something before I did. A great article from Mythic Scribes has had me thinking about world building the past few days. When I first started writing, I tended to just world-build around the story as I was telling it. I think this might have kept me from falling in to the trap of wasting time coming up with information that wasn’t relevant to the story. But it also handicapped me a little, in that I had to go back and draw maps to I could get a sense of where my characters are. I had to go back and research cultural basis for my nations traditions, and come up with a reason why Endans can talk to trees.

Now, I try to take a more balanced approach to world building. I need to know enough about the worlds to write them and make them seem real, but I don’t necessarily have to develop a detailed description of every ecosystem or draw plans for each city.

Inspiring Authors

My favorite world-builder is J.R.R. Tolkien. This is world building at its most obsessive. He wrote epic histories, created complete languages, and managed to finish and publish some pretty impressive novels. He also wrote a good portion of the Oxford English Dictionary in his spare time. When reading Tolkien, it’s apparent that this author knows how to use words and frames his stories in a rich, compelling cultures with real history. I loved reading his Unfinished Tales, because here you can get a glimpse into his world building process.

Much as a disliked George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire on a personal level (spoiler alert: all the characters you love will die), I had to admire his world building. That was what kept me reading into the middle of A Dance With Dragons. The places, religions, beliefs, and customs of Westeros seemed so real that I kept reading trying to try and figure out how he managed it. His world-building isn’t like Tolkein’s – it is much darker, less academic, and in many ways more approachable for modern readers.

World Building Tips

When building your own worlds, it’s easy to get bogged down in details. One of the things I really liked about Brian DeLeonard’s article on Mythic Scribes was his ability to break world building down to five key components:

  • Magic- What are the magical elements which shape your setting?
  • Ecology- How does the natural landscape affect the societies in your story?
  • Government- Who has authority, and what are they doing with it?
  • Warfare- What do you need to know to develop the action in your story?
  • Culture- How do people behave in your world that might be different?

These might not all be equally important in every story, but you should have some idea of them in mind while you write. Magic and warfare are the two I struggle with the most. You might have different categories that challenge you. Nevertheless, if we can keep world building in mind without letting it run away with us and devour all our writing time, it can really make our stories come alive.