My transition from real maps to fantasy maps happened in an instant the day I opened The Fellowship of the Ring and saw Middle Earth. It was a map of imagination itself. It was an I-need-to-sit-down moment.
The Middle Earth map was wondrous.
I longed to walk its lands, explore its forests, and cross its mountains. The accompanying books said I could (in a strange twist, I read LOTR before The Hobbit). Thankfully, the epic tale lived up to the map, the map intentionally rendered to appear ancient.
Sweet mother of all, I became a fantasy map, fantasy novel convert so fast I didn’t have time to comprehend the event. Not that I stopped reading other genres. I was entering high school and there were many other literary influences on my horizon.
The irony is that all those made-up maps I used to doodle were, in essence, fantasy maps. They were graphic representations of places from my imagination. The thing was, I never imagined anything like Middle Earth. My absent-minded maps were just me playing with continent shapes and subdividing them into countries. I imagined a bit more, but I wouldn’t add those details.
Middle Earth? Good gosh, it had all manner of land features and it was labeled. Names! All over it. Names consistent with different cultures and geographic regions.
Where I was located for my discovery couldn’t have been better. At the time, I was hiking in the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming. They might as well have been the Misty Mountains. Was it fate? It sure felt like it then, and still does.
So, I immediately started making my own fantasy maps and writing novels, right? Not so much. Instead, life got in the way. Over the following decades, there were aborted attempts to start novels, but I never got far. There were a few map/sketches that are lost to time.
And then, as if a haze was moving in, my passion faded out of my life…
It returned when I returned to school in the 90s. My mind, so long sleeping, reawakened. I graduated in 1996. Over the following four years my mind was awash in ideas, but I held back while readjusting to post school life. Even so, my first Ontyre novel was forming in mind, as was a map.
In 2000 I committed in a big way and the dam broke. In a fit of manic creativity, I started work simultaneously on a history, magic system, novel, and map.
The thing was, for how my mind works, the map was the foundation. I’d be blind so my characters would be blind. What was around them? Was there a significant location on the other side of a river, a mountain range? What of other peoples? Cultures, after all, are a product of their environment.
The truth I sensed was that the more real the world was to me the more real it’d be to my characters. And readers.
Where to begin? Well, what did I know at that point? I knew my novel was to be about a country that was the last remains of an ancient empire. Further, it was located in the middle of a vast continent. After the empire fell it became cutoff from outside contact for hundreds of years because the threats beyond its borders were too great.
To get started, I needed a map of the country. At the time it was named Hartise, but I renamed it Carrdia a decade later. The reason was people kept pronouncing it Hartiss when it was supposed to be Hartése. In truth, it was me being too clever. For the remainder of this post I’ll refer to it as Carrdia.
Okay, so I needed a Carrdia map. This is the moment when most writers stumble. They mistakingly believe they need a Middle Earth quality map, or better. Nope. I flipped over a scrap sheet of paper and started sketching.
Yeah, it’s pretty awful, but it was enough to get me by. All these years later it amazes me how many features and names have endured. The Baris Plains, Colossus Range, city of Transgamete, they still exist. The biggest changes I later made were in the south. No problem. That first sketch was like a first draft. Maybe not even that. All that mattered was that it made it possible to do other work.
Also that year, I started drawing a more formal Carrdia map, one with far more detail. Too, it’d reflect changes brought about because the story and its character inspired them.
Be careful what you wish for.
In the end, I couldn’t have been more proud of that first formal Carrdia map. It was part art, part map. It had exquisite detail. I was thrilled with it. Too, it was big, as you can see. In the years since I’ve used it more as art, though. I even printed a version of it and aged it a year or two ago. Yeah, it was fun to do and required a low-heat oven, open flame, and being doused with coffee.
Anyway, let’s travel back again…
It was 2001. My big, detailed Carrdia map had a couple of huge problems.
My first problem was that it took me eighteen months to make. I also knew Carrdia represented only a small fraction of the entire unnamed continent. I was going to draw a dozen more regions at that pace? Ah, that’d be eighteen years.
The second problem, especially at the time, was that the map was huge. How was I supposed to share it? Remember, it was 2001. There were no smart phones to enable just taking a picture and uploading it. Not to mention, it was so big that I’d have lost detail. Believe me, I tried to photograph it. Not only were details lost, but lighting it properly was a nightmare.
I’m not an accomplished artist so I couldn’t solve the first problem with paper and pencil. For the second issue I came up with an ingenious idea that was successful. Oh, but was it a lot work. It also had its own problems.
Using the technology of the day, I scanned the map in pieces at the highest resolution I could. I then reassembled the pieces in the computer using crude imaging software. They had to be realigned and there was overlap. In many places I cloned where edges were fuzzy or sections needed blending. Too, despite my best efforts the brightness differed between sections. It took time, but I worked out the lighting.
Oh, but it got worse. The resolution still wasn’t what I wanted. When the map was viewed on the screen it was murky and difficult to read. I performed enhancements to it, including sharpening. That was good enough for mountains and rivers, but not the labeling and other fine details if viewed smaller than its original size (I’d drawn it with pencil and could only get the lead so sharp).
A related issue was that I wanted to be able to print sections of the map if I wanted, but they weren’t reproducing well.
The solution? A massive project (yes, another one) where I painstakingly went across the map removing all the labeling. Of course, in places I’d left it blank behind where names were located so I had to fill-in using the computer. After all that was done I then used a computer font to relabel the entire map.
All this to have a Carrdia map and have it in the computer? How was I going to produce an entire continent? I didn’t want to think about it. In fact, I’d already concluded that wasn’t going to happen. Advancing technology agreed with me.
Once the drawn Carrdia map was in the computer, my first thought was that it would have been easier if I’d just made it in the computer in the first place.
Keep that thought until next week…
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