How Maps Shape Worlds (VEDA Day 15 )

How Maps Shape Worlds (VEDA Day 15 )

Hello Rebel, and welcome back to my life.

So one of the most important parts of being a fantasy author is building the world my stories take place in, and a huge part of that is creating the actual physical world itself in the form of a map.

I first created the map of Underrealm in its very general form way back in 2014 when I wrote Nightblade, but it was a very crude thing.

And I’m currently engaged in a project, which will take me a very long time, I’m sure, of turning that into an actual professional map that I can print out as a poster and put in my books and that sort of thing.

Creating a real map has given me an extreme respect for cartographers and the painstaking work they have to go through. I didn’t realize until I started studying real-world maps just HOW MUCH detail goes into every square inch of space.

And that’s because there’s SO MUCH out there in the real world. In fact, there’s so much detail in every acre of the real world that it’s impossible to represent it all ON your map.

And it seems to me that that’s one of the primary duties of the cartographer: not figuring out how to include EVERYTHING on your map, which you just can’t do, but determining what to EXCLUDE from your map while still having it be a useful resource that will help people understand what they’re looking at.

Take drawing a mountain range, for example. You just can’t draw EVERY single mountain on your map. You might mark out a couple of distinctive mountains that have special importance, but generally you just throw down a bunch of mountains to show where the mountain range is.

Forests are the same way—a collection of trees meant to represent the whole, rather than a depiction of every one of the thousands or hundreds of thousands or the millions of trees that ACTUALLY exist.

But when you’re talking about fiction, and particularly fantasy, the map is not just a “cool byproduct” of the story. It’s part of the world you’re trying to build, and in some cases it has its own, autonomous influence on the story itself.

The maps of Middle-earth that can be found in the published versions of Lord of the Rings were based on drawings by Tolkien himself, which were often duplicated and expanded and given detail by his son, Christopher Tolkien.

I recently read the book The Return of the Shadow, which is an account by Christopher Tolkien about how his father created The Lord of the Rings. In it, he discusses several examples where Tolkien would write a portion of the book, and then draw out the map where that part of the story would take place.

Sometimes, in drawing the map, Tolkien would be struck by an idea that would then cause him to go back and change the story to reflect what he’d drawn. The map wasn’t just a representation of the book—it was its own creation, as much a part of the narrative as the words themselves.

And as I’m creating my own maps, I’m coming to realize why. In designing this world, I’m finding details that I never thought of when it was just words in my head or on the page.

Sometimes I’m finding contradictions. For example, I wrote in my books that the King’s Road, the longest road in Underrealm, ran through all the capital cities of all the nine kingdoms.

But as I was drawing the road today, I realized that one of the kingdoms would never put its capital on the mainland, but would put it out on the huge island, almost a continent in itself, where that kingdom’s king had ruled for centuries.

That’s a relatively minor error, and one it’s easy to go back and fix in the books. But I’d never have realized it if I hadn’t done this work to create my world in a more visual, concrete fashion.

The map of Underrealm will take a long time to create, and then I’ve got all my many smaller maps of each kingdom and some important cities to draw as well.

It might not even be ready for my readers to see this year. But it will be having an influence on the books I write long before it’s finished. And I hope it’s going to be a tool that makes each book better and better.

That’s it for today, Rebel. Don’t forget that my book Shadeborn was re-released yesterday! You can pick up a copy at the link in the description below.

Thank you so much for watching, and I will see you tomorrow. Byyye!

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at

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