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 MarisMcKay.com
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 MarisMcKay.com
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 MarisMcKay.com
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, 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.