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Now that I have a bunch of cool ideas to expand from, one part of the world-building process I am most eager to deal with is map-making! However, maps are quite tricky in the sense that

  • they are necessary to ensure consistency of the story
  • they set rock-solid constraints on the stories I will be able to tell

Clearly, while these are just the two sides of the same coin, the first point tends to favor including maps early in the process, while the second recommends to wait as long as possible to keep my options open.

One additional point is that map-making is a long process and it is desirable to limit the number of iterations needed to make it consistent with my story.

In a bottom-up approach (i.e. world design is based on suitability with the story rather than the opposite), what are the essential features of my story that I need to have laid out before starting the mapping process?

EDIT (this be will updated based on comments)

For the purpose of the question you may assume that

  • the story is set on a single planet.
  • the placement of natural features (mountains, rivers) should be roughly self-consistent (i.e. no river going upstream or splitting into two) ...
  • ... but I am not concerned about how the features came to be where they are (e.g. if the story needs a volcano here, I am not going to deal with the formation of the volcano, ages before the story settings). In short the map should be plausible as far as the timescale of the story is concerned, but geological times do not matter.
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closed as too broad by JBH, anon, rek, Renan, James Nov 13 '18 at 19:38

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ How scientific you want to be in your map making? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Nov 12 '18 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander I edited my post to answer your comment. Please let me know if you need more info. $\endgroup$ – Alexis Nov 12 '18 at 20:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH They aren't asking "can you help me make a map for my story", they are simply wanting a process that they can go through in order to get started on creating a suitable map $\endgroup$ – Bewilderer Nov 12 '18 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ Much too broad. Perhaps start with this list of questions $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 12 '18 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexis I cast a vote to close based on your comment. I personally feel that if you list out your requirements asking for a checklist of things to make sure you consider/action to take makes for a good question. Would probably add the worldbuilding-resources tag. $\endgroup$ – James Nov 13 '18 at 19:40
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I think befor you want to design a map for your story, you need to know more about the 'actors' and 'events' in a broad sense. If your story tells about the aftermath of an age of war, millenia of fighting and hate, dynasies of leaders sending their forces against each other, then you need to know, what nations that were.

When you know, what these factions and nations are, what events happened in your world, you can first describe them. To stick to the example of war, who fought against whom, who started it, how did they fight (land, water, air?). Why did they prefer or excel at that style, how did it look like. These seem like unneccesary details, but i will say something on that later.

After that try to image, why these details occured. The attackes with horses may come from a widespread country with just few hills and spare vegetation. Soldiers with lighter armor may normally live in a land with many forests, less densly populated etc. I mean, why was Great Britan considered THE seafaring nation and not, lets say, Russia.

The more events and stories you can settle in your world, the easier it is to derive aspects of your world from it. The look of people (the people from the country with spare vegetation may look darker, while cover from the sun means lighter skin), their culture and religion (seafaring people will value freedom very high, while dense populated counties may value more safety and thus more political strenght) and their natural resources (hills mean easier access to valuaable minerals and ores, vegetation means better plant grow, widespread countryside means more trade of the goods one part of the country has).

Additionally, these details make your story more vivid. In an attacking country, poverty may be a problem, but may not feel the depression of being in an war, while the attacked nation suffered sever civil casualties, causing non-state resistence groups even against both sides, as the nation is to weak. And all this only comes from the example of one maybe even small war.

But most importantly, while coming up with events you have to care not to cause inconsistencies. Two befriended nations can start a war against each other, caused by a conflict of their leaders, but ending a war and befriend to nations immediatly is very unlikely. People from that other country may cause anger, even irrational emotions of hate.

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It depends a lot on your writing process. Let me share an experience: for a book I wrote, I created a whole world, far more than I needed. Geology, oceanography, weather patterns, ecologies etc., and that's not even counting the economics of trade, the geographical constraints on the society and so forth that followed. Many detailed maps were drawn. As all this took place, my story changed in response to the world building and had to be rewritten again and again. The whole thing took a decade. It was fun, no question, but the wrong approach if your goal is to actually tell a yarn.

On the other hand, Terry Pratchett once quipped (in the preface to his World Mappe, I think) that finally drawing the Discworld map made him realize that he had journeys of a thousand miles take just three days. No false modesty, but Sir Terry was the better writer. Emulate him, not me.

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If you already know what your map will need to do in your story in terms of setting, then the true issue is getting from place to place. If you know you will need a jungle here, a tundra there, and a forest somewhere in the middle, then it simply comes down to placing them on a map. Unfortunately, that is one of the hardest parts, and you will need to do a lot of research into weather patterns and climates to be able to find out what sort of placement will make sense. For example, jungles and rain forests will need to be both close to the equator and near water, while drier climates will need to be mostly land-locked with mountainous regions to hinder cloud movement. There are resources online to test potential climate zones of one of your created maps. Of course, you could just keep going to the random map generator and just generate maps until you get one you want... but that's neither here nor there.

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From the sounds of it, you want to write your stories before you build map for your world. A map doesn't need to be accurate or 100% believable, because to recreate the effects of every weather condition, off planet effects, water flow, the rain cycle, wind direction and what not is unfeasible.

I can easily put a volcano next to the largest thriving town if I wanted to. I can have a volcano surrounded by grasslands or forests supported by the fertile volcanic soil. Even if you wanted to be super descriptive and describe the landscape at every single landmark, you would just abstract away the part that makes it unbelievable... the travelling.

I Suggest you start with major cities and landmarks in your story. Throw them one by one to a blank piece of paper and fill in any requirements they have (e.g. Port cities need the sea, River cities need rivers, Volcanoes are volcanoes). Once they are in place, place some roads and plan out the environment around the roads.

A reader doesn't need to know that it was dry because they were in the rain shadow of a mountain. You as the author of the story make it dry because its suitable for your story. Likewise, they could be in the raining season in the tropics but have nice bright skies, because you want that scene in your story.

Finally you can skip over a lot of the complications and boring stuff... need to travel around a desert to get to the forest? just say the journey took some weeks. Need to Travel to another city across the sea? just say it took several months.

You only need to draw the part of the map that you described in your story. The rest can be filled in later for consistency.

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