Crafting a map for a fictional universe can be a handy resource for readers. Not every fiction has a cartographic reference, nor is it a requirement for good work. However, when done correctly, a map benefits both author and reader.
In this article, I’ll give an example of how I create my maps. You can take what you find appropriate and apply it to your projects. Hopefully, this tutorial will get you started. It may be a bit complicated and technical but bear with me.
You can use whatever media you want to design your map. I use a free program called GIMP. Set your image borders appropriately, and use a DPI of 300×300, in case you ever print out the map. Search under advanced settings for this feature.
Layer 1: The Background
When you have your blank canvas set up, first address the background. My personal preference is a basic fill tool. Your mileage may vary, depending on what kind of background your story needs. Most maps are continents, so they require an ocean or blue background.
Something like this:
I did a fill command in GIMP for the ocean backdrop here, then added some darker shades to indicate ocean depth.
Layer 2: Landmass
The next layer I work on is the outline and general fill of the land. Choose a yellow, peach, or brown color that resembles dirt or clay—or do whatever you want of course—for the land color.
You can use a pathing or pencil tool to create the black outline of the land, as shown, then use the fill tool. Most land isn’t perfect or smooth. Go for jagged edges along coasts or coves to simulate water erosion. You can also get creative and design fragment islands.
Layer 3: Land Color/Features
With the general land layer in place, you can focus on the more detailed facets of your map. Color coding. This step can be done in several ways, but in my example, I use pure color to indicate trees and mountains.
I used a light green to represent grasslands, dark green for forests, blue for lakes and rivers, brown for mountains areas, and white-brown for snow. Select all of layer 2 with a wand tool, so you don’t create color outside the landmass.
For the water masses, I went back to layer 2 and erased parts of it. Doing this allowed layer 1 to fill in where lakes and rivers lie.
Layer 4: Additional Land Details
This is another optional and flexible step, depending on what you want for your map. I added redundant mountain figures and then floating islands here. This gave the map more depth.
Here’s a tip: create one mountain figure and then use the clone stamp tool to easily replicate it. This makes it a lot easier! 🙂
Layer 5: Landmarks
Now that you have your land finished, it’s time to add landmarks! What do I mean? Cities, castles, special areas, and so forth. No, you don’t have to draw an entire castle—use symbols to represent them.
I used simple dots with minor details. You can certainly be creative with this and draw one small castle—then, using the clone stamp tool, replicate it wherever.
Layer 6: Map Legend
Every map needs a legend—a reference to tell readers what your landmarks mean. A north arrow or distance bar is also handy. You can make one yourself, or download a free-stock photo.
Position your legend so that it doesn’t overlap over map details. Choose a location where there is a lot of “empty space”; this will add visual balance to your map.
Layer 7: Captions
You need captions that specify major or minor points on the map. Include text for your legend, a title, and any additional information a reader should know. A small bit about who authored the map is also good.
In this example, broader or more critical areas have a larger font size, while minor or smaller areas have a lower font size. If I were to do this over again, I’d probably make the font size for cities a bit larger, but at the same time, I don’t want to crowd the other map details with text. On an ebook or actual copy, the text would scale larger, but in the thumbnail here, it’s smaller.
Also consider using New Times Roman, or Courier. You want text that is easy to read, not necessarily fancy ones like I tried above.
Try adding in a background behind certain captions to improve readability. Don’t make it too sharp, just enough to accentuate the caption’s letters. Notice the difference below:
Layer 8: Border Details
Try adding in some special effects to your borders. This will help your map stand out! Maybe mist or fading out of the ocean. I went with scroll parchment.
Other Things to Consider
You could also add in fantasy details like sea dragons swimming in the ocean, or maybe other mythic creatures that add an “ancient” feeling to your map. Clouds with shadows are nice too. Go wild! Remember, this is your map and fictional world.
Creating maps is a fun activity that adds important detail to your story. A map can be a wide variety of things—and the example above is just a few of them. Remember, there are thousands of ways to design a map, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.
I hope this article has helped get you started with the map making process. Cheers. 🙂
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