Sketching a Functional City Map for Orientation and Reference

The city map. I can’t believe I’ve never focused on this topic before because the city map, or any one for a small area, is probably the most useful. World maps are glorious and epic, but for the writer, theres’ nothing like one that gets down to the details you need.

Pannulus 2020D

Pannulus. ©2020 CA Hawthorne

Yes, need. As in functionality. As in a tool for the writer.

In other words, what can the map do for you?

  • Keep you and your character(s) oriented.
  • Serve as inspiration.
  • Store information for reference.
  • Provide a bird’s-eye view of the setting.

Please keep in mind that this topic applies to everyone, not just fantasy writers. Too, there’s a good reason to sketch a simple map, even for those who don’t write fantasy. Here’s a sampling of fictional cities:

Atlantis (legend). The Emerald City (children’s lit). Metropolis (comics, sci fi). Gotham City (comics, film). Minas Tirith (fantasy fiction, film).

Want more contemporary?

Mayberry (Andy Griffith). Smallville (Superman). Bedford Falls (It’s a Wonderful Life). Sunnydale (Buffy).

Countless writers of historical, historical fantasy, and steampunk fiction use London as their backdrop. More on real world cities coming up.

I’ve made a number of my own:

In the country of Carrdia, I’ve made maps for Barnavava (my first ever city map), Meldenphire, Transgamete, and Vernathia.

Likewise, in Pannulus I’ve made city maps for Arthune, Cather, Duskspell, and Raspell. I’ve also made one for the Karthington Estate on Cape Caprice and the village/resort of Looking Glass.

Sketched map of Arthune. ©April 2022 CA Hawthorne

Sketched map of Arthune. © April 2022 CA Hawthorne

None have I utilized like Arthune where several short stories, a couple of novella’s, and a couple of novels take place (at least, in part). With each story written I’ve added to the map. In fact, when I wrote Following the Essence Stone, I realized the original was inadequate because of all the alterations to it. Too, parts of it just weren’t working and I’d been ignoring the problems.

I made a new Arthune map. It took me all of a couple of hours and—bingo! New map. Even it has been amended. Oh well.

Is it beautiful? Absolutely not. It’s functional. It has what I need to reference and no more. I could put more on it, and probably will, but I try to be selective in what’s added.

So yes, now we’re back to functionality.

Any map, from historical maps of London to Google Maps can be too packed full of information. That’s where a sketch can come in handy. You trace or copy the important details you need and that’s it. If it’s technically incomplete, who cares? It serves your needs. It can be sloppy. The scale can be off a little. It doesn’t matter, so long as you realize that.

On my Arthune map, the city blocks are all out of whack. It kinda drives me nuts, but it serves my purposes for now. A third one might happen, or not.

Map of Duskspell. ©April 2022 CA Hawthorne

My awful, though still somewhat functional map of Duskspell. ©April 2022 CA Hawthorne

A map (sorta) gone wrong is my Duskspell map, and still it’s functional. The original was hand-drawn. The biggest problem with it was I kept turning the paper this way and that when I’d add street names. Half of them were upside down.

Needing to make major changes, I made a second version on the computer and outsmarted myself. I forgot to include the city’s name. Fonts are too small or too light to be seen. It isn’t a total loss, though. I can use it as a regional map.

In the future, I’ll draw a better downtown Duskspell map that only includes from Sable Inlet to the north to the Reflection River to the south. Given that Talma lives along the edge of downtown and her story (stories?) are urban, that’d be helpful.  It needs to happen.

The minuscule font forces me to put my glasses on.

More downtown space would allow me to include more structures. Duskspell is all about tall buildings (they rise above the almost perpetual fog). I’ve already identified a dozen of the tallest ones, along with other important locations that aren’t on the map because there isn’t space.

It’s annoying.

And I’m still angry about the eyeglasses.

See, that’s what I mean. Functionality. I broke my own rules and so, compared to the Arthune map, it fails.

 It’s also not that big of a deal, and that’s a point I want to stress. A simple sketch is easy to make and easy to discard. It contains only what you need. You don’t want more than you need because you want to be able to reference information fast.

It’s your map. Make it your own. Have fun!

About Christina Anne Hawthorne

Alive and well in the Rocky Mountains. I'm a fantasy writer who also dabbles in poetry, short stories, and map making. My Ontyre tales are an alternative fantasy experience, the stories rich in mystery, adventure, and romance. Alternative fantasy? Not quite steampunk. Not quite gothic. In truth, the real magic is in those who discover what's within.
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2 Responses to Sketching a Functional City Map for Orientation and Reference

  1. City maps are always good, both of themselves and as a writing tool. I have vague recollection that Terry Pratchett used the commercial map of Ankh-Morpork as a reference for the Discworld books he wrote after the map was published. I am still working up my own fantasy novel series (non-fiction takes precedence just now as it turns the dollar) and have been wondering about mapping the key city, if only to get the continuity right.

    • Making a map, any map, is a great launching pad for any novel or series. Anyone who loves maps and finds them fascinating finds inspiration in them. They’re a million stories waiting to be told.

      Since 2015 I’d been writing short stories for a place I knew nothing about. In 2018 I finally set to work on the archipelago that is Pannulus. Even while I was working on it I had story ideas leaping to mind.

      I was to Los Angeles once and the way it sprawls was part of my inspiration for Arthune. Duskspell, though, was a cross between New York City (I grew up near it) and San Francisco (I was there once). It’s no coincidence that both cities have a number of suspension bridges, which Duskspell also has. In a key scene, Talma, who’s a photographer, is allowed to accompany a city worker to the top of one of the bridge towers. I was fortunate to find videos showing what that experience is like.

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