I was recently followed by Soraya Corcoran of SMC Cartography. Soraya has drawn some amazing fantasy maps, so I asked her for a guest post on her craft. She was happy to oblige, so feast your eyes on her brilliant art and read her tips on world-building. And if you wish to commission her, her rates are pretty reasonable!
SMC Cartography – Making Maps
Let me tell you about myself. I was born and raised in a small village in wild Montana, a quiet place where nothing exciting happened. Once I was of age, I set sail on the Pacific as one of the logistics specialists aboard a great military ship, where I most certainly did not talk like a pirate most of the time. Three years I spent on the seas, until I settled into the life of a writer and freelance cartographer, making maps for many realms. I’m here to tell you a little about that today.
Worldbuilding tips, elemental style!
- Water will always take the path of least resistance, from higher elevations down to the large body of water that would be a lake, sea, or ocean. As a general rule, rivers may merge at several points but will rarely split apart.
- Mountains are formed by the movement of plate tectonics. They’re called mountain ranges for a reason, forming lines, not so much clumps. If you have a mountain range shaped into a perfect circle, you’d better have a good magical backstory on why it’s there. We’re fantasy fanatics after all. We love magic.
- While ocean currents pertain to the movement of sea water, WIND is one of the forces that move them, and this determines the climates in your world. But it’s easier to have your Frozen Northlands and your Impassable Southern Desert, isn’t it? In arid regions, wind is a great source of erosion. A VENTIFACT is a rock that has been shaped by wind carrying sand and such.
- Fire… volcanoes. Most volcanic activity is in the oceans. The Hawaiian Islands were formed by volcanoes, in areas called hot spots, where a magma chamber is stationary. The continental plate shifts, exposing new parts for more volcanoes to form. It’s a volcanic chain, which is why the Islands are in a line. In 50 million years, there might be more Hawaiian Islands, and the ones we know will be gone.
Creating a whole world from scratch
I’ve always been creative. Always had a highly active imagination. Two of my maps I created after writing entire novels. It’s funny how the novel or the map can change based on the other. Sometimes I have an idea of what the continents will look like, other times I just start making shapes. Here is an unfinished project:
One of my favorite parts of map-making is the early stages of deciding where the land is. In Photoshop, I use cloud-like brushes with an angle jitter, and I begin blocking in the main landmass. I add some here, erode it back there, until I end up with a dynamic piece of land. It looks ALIVE. There’s a lot of story potential in this world based on the geography alone. You can even see where I have a hotspot (mentioned above), which forms the island chain at the bottom.
Then I start filling in where the mountains and rivers are, throw in some forests. If I finished this map, I would add in cities along the various rivers, lakes, and islands, perhaps add some roads or trade paths. This is the kind of map you’d likely see in a book, the kind map I love to make.
Now here’s a finished product for my WIP fantasy novel CAPTAIN OF FORTUNE:
What about URBAN MAPS?
An urban map illustrates a town. If I created an urban map for the city of Lantha, shown in the above map, it would be a top-down map of buildings, roads, slums, and all the fun stuff that popped up in this thousand-year-old empire. It can be tricky to start a town map, especially a large one. The best place to start is the most important buildings and the main roads that connect them.
This is a small map of a village I created:
You can start with small villages, and work your way up. Or you can be crazy like me and leap straight into this (work-in-progress obviously):
Let’s finish this up with a VERY BRIEF color progress image of how I colored the New Ashta village map.
The advantage of using multiple layers is being able to alter one without destroying something else. Each of these is its own layer. The OVERLAY blending mode lets you keep that nice paper texture beneath. When you get to the actual coloring part, you don’t need to worry about all the shades of all the colors, because you did all the shading already. The COLOR blending mode simply changes the color on top!
I hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen today. Hopefully, you come away with some new knowledge or inspiration to go forth and start sketching maps of your own. There is a treasure trove of resources out there, believe me. As naturally talented as I may be, I didn’t learn everything on my own. And if all of this is still beyond you, I do take commissions. Check out my website to see more maps and stories!