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So you want to make a map? – Part 1

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

By Alex Richards

Perhaps you're part way through writing a story and want to help readers understand where events are happening in relation to each other. Maybe you've got a finished book but want to give it some extra dazzle. Or maybe you've just had a great idea for a scenario but want to do something different from just a written outline. Whatever the reason, you've decided you need a map, but are not sure where to start. While follow on posts to this will go into the technical matters of actually creating a map, before you start there's a simple question to answer: Why?

While at its core the answer to this should be 'I think a map is the best way to express this', and should hopefully include 'I'll enjoy making it', there are three broad areas of consideration contained within that question.


The first aspect is who you're making the map for. Broadly there are three categories here, either for personal use, for inclusion in a larger work- be it as an integral part or as bonus content- or as a stand-alone piece. Each will require you to take a different mindset of what needs to be included, and what is an unnecessary element that either adds nothing to the finished product, or actively makes it harder to use.

The simplest matter here is the aide-memoire- which will be entirely dependent on what you need the map to do. As such, I won't be going into great detail here, but suffice to say don't be afraid to just print a map off and physically write on it, or use a basic programme like MSPaint to draw on it. A map for personal use doesn't need to be a work of art, it just needs to include the information you need to keep track of.

But for public consumption you're going to need to consider another key aspect.

Means of Distribution

Only you will know the best way to get your map to the people you want to show it to, but there is a key distinction here to be made between a work intended to be viewed as a physical entity (and here I include ebooks, as the considerations for print publication apply in this case as well), and one which will be viewed online only, and it ties into how large a map you're making.

While bandwidth is obviously an issue, theoretically an online map can be as large as you want it to be- though the size should still be appropriate to the amount of detail you're including in it. As those accessing it will be able to zoom and pan across the map, there is little concern if it is illegible if viewed at screen width. For a physical map, this isn't the case. Even though somebody can step closer to a wall-map or poster to see the details, the size remains constrained simply by how much wall-space is available in the typical home, and how much the typical person will be willing to use for a map. For print publication the restrictions are even greater- the map must be legible and have all the required detail when actually laid out on the page, for example all the maps for Look to the West are 1748 pixels by 2480 pixels, which among other things allows space for titles, margins page folds rather than fully filling up a standard A4 page when resized.


Perhaps most important however is the purpose of your map, which can be split into three broad categories: To inform, to illustrate or to decorate. Of course any given map can fit into multiple categories- some of the most memorable will fit into all three- but determining which of these is the most important will be crucial to making a good map.

Informing is perhaps the easiest to explain- this is a map that depicts a relevant situation, perhaps a street map of the town where events take place, a national map with key cities indicated, or a map showing the gains made by a nation in a given treaty. The distinction between this and illustrating can be considered as one between showing a snapshot and showing a period of time- perhaps through labels indicating the dates of Statehood for an alternate United States, or the route a character takes, or a battlefield map showing the lines of advance.

Decorative maps meanwhile are where the requirement for artistic skill starts to become greater- here we step beyond the simple aspect of portraying the situation and into creating a true work of art. As such, this is an element that can only come with practice, but I'll be giving tips that can be used to help here in future posts. The most important thing to remember is that decoration is always an optional extra – and for a published map can well be a hindrance to legibility.

Alex will continue his series in future articles on Sea Lion Press.


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