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What a Cartographer Can Do for You by Glynn Seal

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I’m really excited about this month’s guest post. Glynn Seal has created my map for me (from a rather terrible sketch (did I ever mention that I can’t draw? No? Well, forget I said anything)), and since then a lot of readers have told me how much they love Rifarne’s map. I‘ve even used it as a point of reference a couple of times!

I’m definitely no cartographer, but I can appreciate (really appreciate!) how much work goes into creating custom maps. Glynn is the cartographer behind MonkeyBlood Design, and he creates maps for games as well as books. He was fantastic to work with, and did the whole thing in one week.

But that’s enough from me. I’ll hand it over to Glynn, who – unlike me – knows what he’s talking about 🙂

Creating Believable and Unbelievable Maps

Imagination is a powerful thing. In a person’s mind, entirely fictional worlds can be created and explored in detail. As a graphic designer and cartographer for games, it is my goal to assist creators and authors in making their world visually tangible.

In my capacity as a cartographer, I often find myself exploring the imagined worlds of others and bringing a visual reality to their written words. Take a look at some famous books such as Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, and you will see the worlds mapped. This helps to give a sense of familiarity and scale. The same applies to roleplaying books too, where maps are part of the fabric and mechanics of the game.

World Type

There are many different kinds of world in one’s imagination. Some are like our own world – modern and civilised, others are strange and unique – where the laws of physics are defied. There are medieval-fantasy worlds, science fiction worlds, steampunk worlds, prehistoric worlds, magic-rich Egyptian worlds… the list is endless.

When I approach a map, I try to understand the era and the physics, and identify any odd things that you wouldn’t expect and find out why they are like they are. For example – Chinese, 18th century, fantasy with conventional physics and no magic, but there is ice at the equator and deserts at the poles.

Believability first

Unless the concept of the world is that everything is turned on its head, the first goal is to make the world as believable as possible. Believability is an important tool to help suspend the disbelief when reading about the lands. The less abstract the world, the easier it is to understand without additional description, visuals and underlying reasons for the change from the norm. The ice-cold, winter stream, is easier to imagine than the sub-bubbling, gogbolian slavering pits.

Some things are sacrosanct – I know that rivers flow downhill towards the seas, mountains are high and valleys are low, there are no floating islands, and no edges of the world. The earth’s crust is formed of tectonics plates that move around the surface colliding into others and forming high mountain ranges. The expansion of polar ice sheets carves out mountains and valleys, then recede ready for the next ice age. Old meteor impact craters. All these things can be seen on the maps of the world as we know it today. This makes them believable.

The maps of these worlds should be as true to the era and physics as the text. Consider the following believable aspects:

  1. Do the rivers flow from high ground to the coasts? – Rivers can’t flow uphill. They often trickle down valleys.
  2. Are inland lakes placed in areas where water would collect? – Surrounding hills and mountains block water in until it overflows, in much the same way as a dam works.
  3. Are your population centres placed realistically? – These should be next to essential resources like water or woodlands, or close to travel routes, or easily defendable from attack.
  4. Are man-made landmarks obvious? – places of worship and landmarks intended to subjugate/draw the masses were built in places to be easily seen from afar.
  5. Are place names relevant? – Place names always have some form of origin, and are sometimes constructed from old forms of language. They can sometimes be named after local resources like woods, rivers and the like. I live near a place called Aldridge, which is Old English relating to Alder trees and a small hamlet. Also think of Jamestown & Popham colonies named after their founders.
  6. Do roads and trade routes make sense? Is the King’s Road between two isolated hamlets? – A king would not build or fund a road between two minor/insignificant locations.
  7. Do the distances make sense? – If your cities are 1 mile apart you might have a problem. Google Maps or Google Earth is an excellent resource for measuring walking and cycling (horseback) travel distances. You can gauge how far three days foot travel will get you in terms of locations you know from real life. Even overlay your world sketches over real world maps.
  8. Islands taller in the middle – Islands are usually remnants of volcanic activity or erosion. In general, an island has higher ground closer to its centre than the coastal edges.

All of these things are great for believability, but not fixed. You don’t have to do any of these things, but if you don’t then they might need to be explained.

Un-believability second

When the basis of the believable world is understood, then you can start adding the stuff that makes your world really unique. Yellow seas, blue grass, purple skies, The Desert of a Thousand Pyramids, the Floating Islands of Golbad, The Uphill Rivers of Berren, and the Mountain Seas of Turth.

Think of “The Wall” in Game of Thrones – it is not a natural structure that can be explained with geology but has been created by mundane and magical means, and has some history to it to make the structure have some sense in the history of the world.

Glynn Seal - Pic 1

In another example created for a different project, The Dry Plains of Golgorn belong to a far less believable landscape.

We have edges of the land descending into purple depths, and fields of tooth-like stones;

Glynn Seal - Pic 2

Mountain spires within craters;

Glynn Seal - Pic 3

And huge loops made of tone

Glynn Seal - Pic 4

So, if the skies are purple, why are they and how does this impact life under those conditions? How are the stone loops formed? Explaining these features help with the sense of immersion.

The Kingdom of Rifarne

In tackling Rifarne, I knew that the world was high fantasy, and with a useful author sketch I was set. The kingdom would have no particularly unusual characteristics, so I could proceed with the normal and familiar ruleset.

Let’s take a little look at the Kingdom of Rifarne.

Glynn Seal - Pic 5

The river here begins in the hills to the north, then winds its south way down to the coast.

The same can be said of the rivers originating high up in the Boneanvil Mountains.

Glynn Seal - Pic 6

The White City is located on the coast where easy access to lumber from the nearby woods, water source and trade is all easy enough within the protection of Crystal Bay.

Glynn Seal - Pic 7

The Temple Isle has hills at its centre.

Glynn Seal - Pic 8

So, in summary, your worlds can be as unbelievable as you like but always start with the basis of things that are understandable and conventional and add to it.

All these details really make a world come to life, and maps are a small but invaluable part in the author’s arsenal.

Thank you so much, Glynn, for stopping by and sharing what you do with us!

Have you created a map for your novel, or are you trying to but you’re not sure how everything fits together? Stay a moment, grab a cookie (and a tea) and let’s chat! Glynn will pop in today to answer your questions, too 🙂


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  1. I love this, I’ve saved it so I can look back on it later. Some good points as always and get some great graphics and ideas.

  2. Awesome guest post! I have a (reasonably) detailed map which I work from and every time I start a story set in a new world, I sketch a map. I find it helpful with consistency especially when characters are travelling a lot 🙂

    • I agree! The map tends to be the first thing I work on, it’s a huge help! Plus my worlds wouldn’t feel complete without their own map 🙂

  3. The map should always be a living, breathing and evolving document up until it’s time to “go live”, as you can always add extra stuff to suit how your story evolves 🙂

  4. What an informative post! Touches on so much that I wouldn’t think of at all. I have to create a map for my world, so this is getting saved so I can refer to it in the future!
    Thanks Sarina for hosting and thank you Glynn for the wealth of knowledge 😀

    • I’m so glad you found it useful, Faith 🙂 I can’t wait to see your map!

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