Six steps to map-making in fantasy and science fiction

Recently I read an insightful post about map making in fiction. In his blog post, Alex Acks discusses the impossible geology behind Tolkien’s map of Middle Earth. http://www.tor.com/2017/08/01/tolkiens-map-and-the-messed-up-mountains-of-middle-earth/

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Maps are a welcome addition to almost any book. In science fiction or fantasy, maps are part of world-building, a tool for the writer as well as the reader. But a map is much more than a river here, a town there. To be believable and to ‘work’ when the story is told, the creator of a map should think about six components of a workable landscape map.

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geology 2
an outcrop of rock reveals the local geology

1. Basic Geology

Geology is the study of the hard structure of the earth, of the component rocks and sediments and the processes forming and changing them. Geology provides the basic bones of the landscape. Geological features such as mountains are formed when tectonic plates collide or slide beneath one another, causing big wrinkles in the landscape. Deciding the locations of these wrinkles is the first step in making a realistic map.

geology
basic geology of an area showing a mountain range, sloping to north and south

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geology 3
a hilly landscape

 

2. Geomorphology

Geomorphology is the study of the elements of landscape and how those elements are created and changed. When the basic bones of the earth are modified by movements of air and water, landscape elements such as hills, river valleys, deserts, and cliffs are formed.  Thinking about the origin, evolution, form, and distribution of landforms will help create realistic landscapes and maps. For example, if you want a desert on your map, imagine how years of erosion might have worked to create it at the base of a mountain range. Look at maps of actual terrain and see how rivers snake across the landscape, and how tributaries join the main stem in patterns.

geomorphology
geomorphology of an area, showing a mountain range, a hill, rivers, a desert, a coastal plain and an ocean

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vegetation 3
two communities of vegetation: a field of blueberries (in autumn red) and a woodland of various kinds of trees

 

3. Ecology

Once you have built the geomorphological elements of your landscape, you can arrange the living components, the plants and animals. Keep in mind concepts of diversity (how many different kinds of plants and animals there are) and habitat preference (for example, some plants and animals prefer wet environments, some dry). Plants and animals needing the same conditions tend to group together in communities (forest, wetland and desert, for example). To make your world consistent and predictable, create profiles for the plants and animals in your world, just as you would for the sentient characters. Of course you world may not have the same ecology as earth … instead of plants and animals, you may have gootangs and elastiboes!

vegetation
two vegetation types: green for woodland and brown for lowland shrubs

 

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land use 2
a city on a peaceful river

 

4. Settlements

If you have sentient characters in your world, they need somewhere to live. Your map can contain individual dwellings or settlements and villages, towns and cities. When you locate these settlement features on your map, consider how sentiments beings choose where to live. They need the basics – food and water; rivers and coastal areas provide some of this. They may also need a way to transport goods, another reason many communities are situated along rivers. They may be located strategically, on a ridge or in a protected valley. Sometimes there are spiritual reasons for choosing a village site – in full view of a mountain for example.

towns
three settlements: villages to the west and east, and a hamlet to the south

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details
roads and paths: details to make the landscape accessible

5. Details

Once the landscape of your map is decided, and it is populated by vegetation, animal life and settlements, you can add details for realism. Roads, trails, picnic sites, crossroads, monuments, sacred sites, cemeteries, gathering places … the possibility are endless. You can also add a scale and a compass to the map (if there is a magnetic north in your fantasy world).

details
details added: a red road connecting the villages and a shrine marked with a star

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6. Places

Place names help your reader situate the action in your story. Some of these names will be set when your story is first conceived. Others may need additional thought. A couple of ideas: unless you have a world where every place begins with the letter ‘m’, diversify the names as you would for your characters. Consider using words from geology and biology when looking for names – cauldera, drumlin, marl … copse, thallus, meristem.

names.jpg
some names put to places, including the towns of Pildran and Jet

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In general

Of course, for science fiction and fantasy, processes may not work as they do on Earth. On my planet of Meniscus, for example, water flows up rather than down and water features such as rivers and their tributaries are not a component of the landscape. Your maps should reflect the ‘realities’ of your fantasy world!

The actual drawing of a map is a subject for a different post. I usually draft my maps first with pencil and paper. Then I refine the details in layers using GIMP.

For more information on making fantasy maps, have a look at Lauren Davis’s pointers at http://io9.gizmodo.com/10-rules-for-making-better-fantasy-maps-1680429159

Have fun with your map-making!

Alexandra

 

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Seven sources for story … where do writing ideas come from?

 

 

Where do ideas for writing come from?

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Last November, 2016, while I was busy working on a manuscript of poems about one room school houses, another idea intruded. Within a few days, I was writing a science fiction long poem about two characters adventuring on an alien planet. The sudden urge to write this story surprised even me.

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'horizon' Nov 10 2016 (2016_12_30 00_28_35 UTC)
‘horizon’ November 10, 2016 … one of the first drawings I did to accompany the story. The date says how early my ideas about Meniscus began to gel.

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Looking back, I can identify several precipitating factors:

  • For the previous three or four months, I had been thinking, off and on, with no intention of ever writing it down, about how humans might survive on an alien planet.
  • I have always been interested in science fiction; first on TV with series like Star Trek and Firefly; then in reading of the various Star Trek series, and books by Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King and many others.
  • I keep a file of older writing – including a few pages of my scribbles from the 1990s about character encounters on an alien planet.
  • My writing group, Fictional Friends, planned to hold a Saturday workshop in sci-fi and fantasy and I had nothing new to present.
  • The weekend before, for the first time in a decade, I participated in a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game.

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With this background, I wrote the first chapter of Meniscus:Crossing The Churn and read it at the Saturday writing workshop. I think my friends thought I had lost my mind. Three weeks later I had completed most of the first draft of Crossing The Churn.

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Some of my own interests and knowledge became basic to the story:

  • my knowledge about edible wild plants.
  • my interest in parkour; I have arthritic knees but I have watched practitioners of parkour in Halifax and I have never forgotten the impressive way that they move through the landscape.
  • my interest in geomorphology and landforms. One of the first things I did was create a map of Meniscus and much of the plotting and writing was done with the map in front of me.

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meniscus march 2017
Map of the part of the planet where the story unfolds

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Now, eight months and three published books later, other writing demands are tugging at me. So I will take a break from the Meniscus Series for a few months (four more books are in draft form and I intend Book Four to go live in January 2018).

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Writers are inspired in different ways, but my experience tells me that ideas flow from six places:

  • Keep the ideas that float around in your head; jot them down.
  • Keep older bits of writing you have done; someday they may become part of something bigger.
  • Keep having new experiences; you are never beyond learning something new.
  • Join a writing group; their encouragement or incredulity may urge you onward.
  • Mine your own skills, experience and interests.
  • Read, read, read, in a variety of genres.

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These six points only scratch the surface of where stories come from.  I think there is an important seventh point.

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In each of us are basic principles and beliefs we hold important. On the surface, my Meniscus stories are fanciful adventures on alien landscapes. But deeper motivators are at work: the desire to build strong, independent female characters; concern and respect for the human condition; the need to champion diversity; and distain for those who would enslave people and minimize their importance as individuals. I would like to think that these ideals and others like them are the basis of all stories. They are certainly the underlying motivations behind my writing of the Meniscus Series.

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Best always,

Alexandra

countdown to release

My next book in the Meniscus series, Meniscus: Winter by the Water-climb will be released in 24 days (July 14, 2017).

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JDB_0386
‘winter moons’ by Jane Tims 2017 – the cover art for the new book … the painting shows the water-climb in winter … when water flows upward, the icicles point upward too!

 

In the third book first of the Meniscus series, Winter by the Water-climb follows Odymn and the Slain as they try to survive a winter apart from one another’s help and protection.

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Winter on the planet Meniscus is brutal — the plenty of other seasons gives way to scarcity and desperation. Unprepared for the months ahead, Odymn and the Slain find shelter with the generous Argenops, furry, friendly creatures. When Odymn has to survive without the help of the Slain, she must depend on her own wits and her skill at parkour to survive the alien landscape of the Themble. But she is not prepared for new arrivals in the Themble Wood, a group of survivors, freed from slavery when their transport crashes in the Darn’el Desert. On a planet where Human relationships are not allowed, ten people and an alien child take the first steps toward building a community.

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Even in the dead of winter, you can build another home.

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See you soon!

Alexandra

(Copyright 2017)

Gel-heads – sticky and green

On the planet Meniscus, two humanoid species dominate – the Dock-winders (see my post  June 7, 2017) and the Gel-heads.

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'captive of the Gel-head'
Gel-heads are covered with green gelatinous skin: their muscles, bones and internal organs can be seen through the integument!

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Gel-heads are barely sentient, driven by greed and the search for gratification. They are humanoid, but their skin is green and gelatinous. Through the skin, internal organs, musculature and skeleture are visible.

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Gel-heads plague my Human characters, showing up when least expected. Gel-heads regularly molest Human women with red hair and so are particularly dangerous to Odymn and Vicki.

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Only one Gel-head has proven herself to be helpful to the Humans … a vendor named Wenda keeps a textile stall at the Sintha market and she is always willing to share information, for a price!

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gel-head standup
Gel-head running … a stand-up figure made to promote my book Meniscus: Crossing The Churn at its launch

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Copyright Alexandra Tims 2017