I have always been fascinated by maps, particularly fantasy maps. When I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time, I pored over the maps in the appendices countless times, orienting myself as the Fellowship travelled through Middle Earth, imagining myself in Rivendell and Lothlorien and Rohan. Maps still contribute a large part to my enjoyment of a fantasy novel—when there is no map, I feel that loss keenly.
This loss is not only from an aesthetic viewpoint but also from a practical one. The lack of a map often makes it difficult to orient oneself in a new world. Directions and distances are difficult to get across through prose alone. Maps also give a sense of the scale of a world: often the edges of a map are as interesting as the content. When an entire world can be contained within a square, then nothing is left to the imagination. It is an interesting balance: I want to see a world on the page, and yet I don’t want to see too much. Give me enough to imagine myself there, but not so much that I can’t keep dreaming on my own.
When I write, one of the first things I do is start mapping. Over the years I have developed my own system for mapping, taking pieces from different maps and combining them into something that works for me. The mountains in many of my maps are an homage to Tolkien. The coastlines and hills are taken from Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series. I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory system for lettering. Now that I know much more about typography than I did a couple of years ago, I can’t stand the thought of using Papyrus on a map. I feel a little odd using any digital font at all, because it ruins the effect of “I stumbled into an archive and found an amazing hand-drawn map!” I know it’s fiction, and I know on the surface it seems ludicrous, but for suspension of disbelief to work I believe a map should look as if it originated in the world it depicts. So I’m experimenting with various hand-drawn fonts, trying to find something that I can draw consistently and well.
As much as I love hand-drawn maps, however, there is something to be said for technology. There are two pieces of software that I have used over the years that have proven invaluable. The first, demonstrated in the right-hand image above, is ProFantasy Software’s Fractal Terrains Pro. I stumbled across this gem a few years ago in my search for mapping software and immediately I fell in love. I actually used Fractal Terrains to completely re-image the maps of my world. The ability to view the fractal as a globe, complete with various map projections and topographical displays, was a revelation. It is the next best thing to using an inflatable beach ball and a permanent marker. Better, even, because I can look at versions that show climate, rainfall and temperature.
So Fractal Terrains has become the base for my mapping, but it only goes so far. That’s where good ol’ Photoshop comes in. I am lucky enough, as a teacher, to have access to a discounted version of this graphic design behemoth. I first started fiddling with Photoshop when I was in uni, using online tutorials to get my bearings amidst the often confusing sub-menus and libraries of filters and effects. Now, seven years later, I feel confident enough to navigate my way around Photoshop and use it to best effect for my maps.
One of the most crucial functions of Photoshop has been the ability to use layers. The ability to stack elements on a map, like stacking transparencies on top of each other, is now so essential to my mapping process that I couldn’t live without it. For example, when creating the little graphic above, I was able to simply hide all the layers of the map that contained names, export the image, and then turn them all back on.
Another feature of Photoshop that has proven very useful is the ability to convert an image to Black and White. Not grayscale, mind you—true black and white. Last week I decided I was going to (finally) convert my fractal terrains map into a hand-drawn version. The colour version of the map does look spectacular, but the image was much too dark to simply be converted to grayscale and then traced. Enter Black & White conversion: I was able to control the lightness level of each colour in the image so that the resulting image showed all the rivers, borders, towns and coastline at the perfect level of contrast to be traced. I was then able to use a friend’s lightbox to trace the map into my sketchbook. After that I spent a hand-cramping five hours drawing in the mountains and coastlines with felt tip markers of various widths.
Some people may shake their heads at such a frivolous use of a day. Drawing mountains on a map of a make-believe world? Well, yes. I figure there are much more fruitless ways to spend my time—such as watching television—so why not use it doing something fun? (Yes, my definition of fun is a bit whacked. I don’t care.) Even if you don’t like maps that much, you have to admit that they can look pretty darn beautiful. It’s probably about as close to becoming a visual artist as I’ll ever get, and I’m not about to apologise for hours spent pretending that I’m a cartographer.
I have also used Photoshop in the reverse process. The map for the collaborative project I am working on at the moment began as a hand-drawn sketch. It was then scanned and put into Photoshop, where I added colour and text. This was the result:
My next challenge will be creating a city map for one of the main locations in my world. City maps are not as common as kingdom maps in fantasy novels, but they can be just as fascinating. It will take a little research before I decide how to tackle that project, but I’m ready to go a-mapping. When I’ve made some progress, I might post the results on here.
If you have come across any particularly beautiful or interesting maps in your travels, I would love it if you could share the link here. One can never tire of looking at spectacular displays of cartography.