I may have a little bit of a thing about maps. Real or fictional, I’ll happily spend hours of my time studying a really good map. I collect tourist-guide street maps and stick them on my bedroom walls. Histories of placenames and routeways fascinate me. And when I open a book to find a map inside it, whatever the genre, I’m delighted.
Fortunately I’m not alone, and lots of writers provide maps in their books, especially fantasy writers. We’ve all seen the likes of Tolkien’s maps (pictured above), huge things that fold out from the backs of the books, or those of G.R.R. Martin covering multiple pages, but it’s not only epic fantasies that include maps; some of my early introductions to literary cartography came from The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh (below). They are nothing like the intricate, detailed works required for high fantasies, with their cities and nations and continents, but they always helped a landscape feel real to me. And a well-drawn map of any sort is a work of art in itself.
I think those early favourites are the main reason I always draw maps for my stories. I don’t imagine that most of my maps will ever make it onto a frontispiece, should my stories ever reach publication; in fact, most of what I write probably doesn’t require a map for the sake of the readers (I don’t write a whole lot of high fantasy). But I make them anyway, partly because (as already established) I have a thing about maps, and partly because they’re actually a great way of establishing a good solid setting.
I like to think I’m fairly good at choreographing characters, in that I rarely forget whether a character is sitting or standing, or who crossed the room or picked up their cup of tea, but I’m less good at keeping my locations consistent. Nothing annoys me more than writing the perfect scene and then realising that the whole thing’s impossible because I’ve already established that they couldn’t possibly see the river from the window. So I draw maps. Not usually of entire worlds or countries in the style of Tolkien, just sketch maps of an area, or a town, or the floorplan of a house. It helps me get to know the place my story is set, and I always think that if an author knows their setting well, then the reader will feel that they do too. It also helps me think about my world-building (whether for a fictional world, or a fictional place within the real world) in ways I might not otherwise. For example, positioning cities in places where it actually makes sense for cities to be (e.g. on a river or an inlet of the coast, or at an important strategic border point), or if drawing a street plan of a town, thinking about the history of the place; what was it originally built for and how is that reflected in the layout?
I draw my maps by hand, and for that I’d say that one of the most helpful resources is simply actual maps. Real or fictional, modern or historic, the more familiar you are with them, the easier it will be to create your own. But there are also any number of programmes and guides to help, and map-making software for creating them online, which would probably be very useful if you were planning something more on the scale of Tolkien (I would say ‘I’m sure he’d have used them if they’d existed’ but I’m not convinced he would, since he was, by all accounts, not much of a fan of new technologies). I was planning on trying to compose a helpful list of resources, but then I found that The WorldBuilding School has already composed such a list (some are free and some you have to pay for). Another good place to visit for advice and resources is the Cartographers’ Guild Forum. If anyone has any other great sites or software that they use for this, do leave it in the comments!