At the same time I started writing the history for my world building project I began work on an important visual aid: a map.
Geography influences culture and people. Consider the differences between Miami (hot, humid, sea-level, borders the ocean) and Denver (dry, mile-high, borders the plains and the mountains). Although not imperative, maps are a great aid for fantasy readers who are asked to absorb an entire world. A mystery set in New York City allows the reader to summon images that school, television, movies, and countless other media have provided. The fantasy writer possesses no such head start.
Maps have always fascinated me. In the days before internet they were my imagination’s alternate means of transportation. All that information at a glance!
Early on I learned about road maps. When I was little, in the days before convenience stores, they were acquired at gas stations, which were seemingly on every corner. Mileage. Road sizes. Town names. County lines. The available information went on and on. I learned to visualize the unseen landscape and then, maybe, match my visualization with reality.
My young self, traveling without technological entertainment and unable to read books without suffering nausea, found thrills on those folded vistas:
The road becomes squiggly up ahead. Might there be a lot of hills? It must be, for the river’s blue line follows the same course…
The elevation on that mountain is so high I should be able to see it from here. Is that its snow-capped summit or are those clouds…?
There’s a huge lake close…maybe there’ll be a break in the trees and I can catch a glimpse…
Maps and the open road were adventure. In those days I’d sit in the passenger seat with the map and act as “Dad’s co-pilot.” Those memories, which came during a difficult time in my life, are cherished.
At home the world I explored via maps existed in encyclopedias, National Geographic, and, later, history books. I look now at Captain Cook’s New Zealand map and see the bridge to fantasy writing, for those islands that he explored are where LOTR was filmed.
Fantasy novel maps are function, storytelling, and sometimes art. The most famous were Tolkien’s beautiful Middle Earth maps, which have evolved into their art category. I’m serious. Google his maps and sit amazed at how many artists have re-imagined his maps while remaining true to the originals.
Over the years a rough map for my fantasy series had formed in my mind. I knew for certain that Hartise was located at the continent’s center. From a storytelling perspective I wanted lands for my characters to explore. At the same time, I knew that Hartise was virtually all that remained of a vast Empire that collapsed into chaos (before that it was the northern third of a kingdom, but that’s another story).
The important question, then, was how had a landlocked region managed to survive? There were heroes, of course, and reasons why the invading armies were weakened. At the same time, there were geographical features that aided their fending off the legions coming north from the Boiling Wastes.
In my haste and excitement I reached for the closest paper, realized there was writing on it, flipped it over, and started sketching. It’s difficult to believe that after 13 years that sketch survives. Too, most of those original features were retained. Primary were the protective mountains to the southwest, east, and north. Too, the southern border remained a lowlands marsh. Looking at it now I note a few changed names and that I hadn’t yet created names for the colleges.
That sketch remained my only map until I committed to creating a more elaborate version that possessed a 3D aspect and was intended for eventual publication. The memory is hazy now, but I believe it took at least 18 months to create the bigger, more detailed map that I drew by hand.
Later, I wanted that map on my computer, but ran into a problem: The Hartise map was 4x bigger than my scanner. In the end I scanned it in four sections and then reassembled it in Photoshop. Even later came another project. Despite my best efforts the original labeling was often difficult to read. Thus, I painstakingly removed my writing and replaced it with a computer font. There now exist multiple versions of a map that began as a sketch on a scrap piece of paper.