Reflections and thoughts on map making


Disclaimer: this post is written entirely in English and does not have anything (well, nearly anything) to do with physics. I still hope some people might read it though.


As some readers may know, and some others don‘t, I like alternate history. One particular sub-topic within alternate history that I enjoy more than others is map making. I find it a relaxing process, an interesting learning tool and a creative experience. In other words, I take map making to be a seriously funny and funnily serious business. Having drawn maps since I was in primary school and having had the aforementioned serious attitude to the process for the past few years, I thought I could write down a few remarks about how I make maps and what key stages in the process I believe there are. If this helps somebody to become better at mapmaking – great. If it inspires somebody to start drawing maps – brilliant! If somebody has significantly differing opinions – please discuss.


Now that the introduction to the post is done, I can start the actual article itself, I suppose.



1. Introduction, or “What is a map?“


The word “map“ has a multitude of uses in the English language. While the primary meaning is the common-use one, i.e. some sort of depiction of an area on a two-dimensional surface, this is by no means the only definition. A map is also a mathematical term, meaning a function that can assign values of one set to values of another set; it is also a term in mathematical physics, meaning a graphical representation of multi-dimensional space in the three dimensional one; the word has yet another meaning in programming, where it refers to a particular type of command (or set of commands) that acts similarly to the mathematical map. There are also a number of other, completely unrelated meanings (such as a species of butterfly). The common element in the cartographical, mathematical, physical and programming meanings of the word “map” is that a map always represents one object (or group of objects) as another object (or group of objects). In slightly more sophisticated terms, any map transposes an input into a particular output, which is usually a simplified version of the input.


Now if you are still reading this after that introduction, I should ease you – the maps I will be talking about are the common-meaning ones, i.e. two-dimensional representations of some areas of a world. But even so, this definition contains a lot of somewhat different things, once again proving that most topics are much wider than one would think at first glance. For example, compare these two maps. They both fall under the above definition, yet they have many striking differences: one depicts a city, another depicts a country; one is rather detailed, the other isn’t; one shows a fictional place, another shows a real place; both can be used as reference tools, however, because that is what most modern maps are for. Yet even this has not always been the case. Take a look at this map – it is still a map, but no one would ever use it as a reference.


I hope the above paragraph showed you (if you didn’t know before) that maps can be very different and varied. They serve various purposes, depict various places and are made by various people. No two maps are the same (mass produced ones aside). You may ask what this has to do with drawing maps. I say that it has everything to do with drawing maps, but before going to that, I shall make one more remark.


The phrase “map making” can refer to two, in my opinion, very different processes. One is what I could call modern and professional map making. It is, as far as I understand, a difficult task, where one has to use information available in many sources to depict places and situations of particular interest to an audience, or a contractor. Such maps may be historical and appear in history textbooks; may be sociological and appear in presentations about global warming; may be varied and appear in atlases; may be a number of other varieties and appear in a myriad other places. One common trait of maps made by this first method is that they all depict the situation to the best of modern knowledge and serve a well defined purpose. The second meaning to “map making” may be called “fantasy map making”. This does not mean that such maps depict fictional places – they can, but don’t have to. Instead, these maps are made so as to appear having been made at some other point in time. Some may call them forgeries, but I call them works of art. As an example, the map may show North America as it would be depicted by medieval European scholars had they known about that continent. Or a map of the colonial empire of Venice in the 19th century, even though in our world Venice did not even exist at that time. It is this second type of map making that I do and will talk about here, both because I find it more interesting and because I have little to no understanding of the real workings of the first type of map making.


2. Idea, or “What makes a map?”

Now that I have narrowed down the type of maps I am writing about, it is a good time to start talking about the process of creating one. I find it a good idea to pursue two separate trains of thought when figuring out what kind of map I want to make. They are not mutually exclusive and should be considered both at the same time, but usually, it is the “idea” train that comes first. The thoughts relating to the “idea” can be described as follows:

a)      What is the world I am going to show? This is a different question from “Will my map show Europe, Tenochtitlan or the subway system of Lhasa?” Rather, it is a question about the basis of the whole world that the map will show a part of. Is it a world where the Arabs conquered Europe in the 7th century AD? Is it a world where the Chinese discovered America and started colonising it before the Europeans did? Is it a world where John Lennon was not killed and became President of the United States? Is it even the Planet Earth I want to show? Maybe I’d rather show Middle-Earth, Narnia or the universe of Babylon 5? Maybe I will invent my own world?

b)      Now that I have an idea, can I fill the world, or at least parts of it? An idea, no matter how great, is not enough. If I decide that my world will be one where Arabs conquered Europe, the next question is whether I am able to figure out how exactly they would do this and what would happen after the conquest? The idea is a skeleton; this next part adds muscles.

c)      Once the world is at least partially filled, can I find a good event or situation to show on a map? Again returning to the “Arabs conquer Europe” scenario, maybe I can justify why the Arabs would lose their hold in a few hundred years and show the decline of the Arabian Caliphate? A depiction of the tale is good. A twist in said tale is better. A justified twist is even better.


These three steps allow me to visualise the world that I want the map to depict. Volumes may be written about techniques of world building, both alternate historical and pure fantasy worlds. When thinking of making a map, one does not need to create the full world – only bits and pieces are usually enough. Even so, the more you create of that world, the better you know it, the easier it is going to be to make a map that is believable.


3. An aside, or “What makes a map live?”

There may be many approaches to drawing a map, and what I describe here is only one of them. Yet I believe that a key element in making the map look believable is to become, in your mind, part of the world that you are depicting. Then one can simply describe (or, in this case, draw) the actual reality of the imagined world rather than make up every detail. The subconscious, in my opinion, is a powerful tool, and if the creator can both consciously and subconsciously “enter” the creation, the subconscious will quickly fill in the details, making the world, and, subsequently, the map, come “alive”.


While I knew of this method of world-building for quite a few years now, I was best introduced to it by J.R.R.Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories” (yes, I’m a tolkienite, in case there was any doubt). I don’t have the essay on hand, so I will not find any direct quotes, and besides my own point of view is slightly different, but I can describe the essence of that text. The key point to understand is that even though the created world is fictional when viewed from the perspective of our world, it is not any less real. We cannot physically enter that world, but we experience our physical surroundings through the senses and the brain, so there is fundamentally nothing preventing us from entering those fictional worlds. True, such a visit would only happen in our minds, but that is irrelevant, because it may be argued that the mind is all there is. Alternatively, one can think of those fictional worlds as existing somewhere in the Multiverse of infinite possibilities, and our minds travelling through the borders of separate Universes to reach that fictional-yet-real destination. Whatever the interpretation – literary, psychological or quantum-mechanical, entering the fictional world is an important step in its creation.


Tolkien described this process as sub-creation. The world already exists, we only draw its outline in our minds and then enter it. Then we can observe how that world evolves around us and describe that. It may be said that this is merely a way of releasing the potential of the subconscious, but again, the details of the process do not matter. The fact that the creator starts to live in the creation is the important bit. Of course, there is a fine line between living your creation and becoming delusional, but I hope that most people are able to tell the difference.


4. Circumstance, or “How was the map made?”

So far I have said very little that applies specifically to making maps. While all of the above is useful and, in some cases, necessary, it is just as useful for writing a story as it is for drawing a map. But now I turn my attention to the process of making a map from the world that is created and hopefully experienced. It may seem that it has been a long road to arrive to this point, but in fact it isn’t – once I have an idea (admittedly, it may take time for the idea to appear), the rest takes a day or two at most, then I can start drawing the map. This seems a good place to turn your attention to the other train of thought I mentioned above. As said before, that train can be considered simultaneously with the “idea” part and there is some overlap between the two, but for several reasons, it inevitably comes slightly later. This I would call the “circumstances” of the map’s existence, and divide them as follows:

a)      Why was the map made? What is the reason for its existence and what is its purpose? These two things, although similar, may be rather different. The reason is the external (and, to some extent, past) influence of the map – it could be a war that demanded attention of the map maker, or a significant geopolitical change in the world. The purpose is the internal (and, again to some extent, future) influence of the map – it may be propaganda, it may be a piece of honest information, it may be an excerpt of a military briefing. Thus the reason for the map’s existence is the event or situation that caused the map to appear in the first place, while its purpose is the intended effect and use the map should have.

b)      When was the map made in relation to the events it depicts? Was it made centuries after the situation depicted, just after it, during it or even before it happened? This is a crucial point to address. If the map is made long after the events it depicts, chances are that it will be rather objective (unless it is intended to be a propaganda piece) and thorough, because knowledge of depicted events will be widespread and rather well known. On the other hand, it may be the other way around – if a map depicts times of which very little record survives, its accuracy may very well be disputable. If the map is made not long after the events that are depicted, or during said events, the map maker will probably not have access to a large amount of information, especially not from various points of view. As a result, the map may be significantly skewed to show one particular point of view in favour of the others. Finally, if the map depicts future events, it will be even vaguer, because exact locations of man-made objects cannot be precisely known.

c)      When was the map made in relation to the progress of civilisation? And a related question, –where was the map made? Answers to these two questions determine the style of map you should use. It should come as no surprise that maps made in ancient China differ from those made in the Roman Empire, which in turn differ from those made in the 20th century United States. The differences are both due to cultural styles (the Chinese and Romans value different aspects of art differently, therefore they pay different amounts of attention to various details) and due to the technological advancement of the civilisation that produced the map (today we know the actual contours of the Earth’s continents far better than the Romans did).

d)     Who made the map? This is not an especially important question to answer, but it may add some more flavour to the final work. Was the mapmaker a loyal servant to the King? Was he a rebel? Did he have access to all the best sources of knowledge and drawing tools available at that time? How did his handwriting look like? These are tiny details, but they make the final picture.


Once these questions are answered, the map should already be visible in your head. Maybe you already have some sketches made. This is where the arduous and time-consuming task of actually transferring the idea to paper (or a computer screen) begins.


5. Technique, or “How do I make the map?”

So, the idea is there, the concept is there, the preferred style is chosen, there is only one tiny task remaining – actually drawing the map. This is almost inevitably a time-consuming process (I usually spend at least 4-5 evenings working about 3 hours per evening to make a map). The details of the task depend very much on what kind of map you are making, while the general process should not be too difficult to understand. However, there are some tips and tricks that may help the prospective map maker. They are, in no particular order:

a)      Deciding between drawing by hand and using a computer. This is an important step, but I cannot offer a lot of advice. I used to draw maps by hand a long time ago, but they were little more than random lines superimposed on a map of Europe. I have seen beautiful maps drawn by hand, but I have not made any. In theory, drawing by hand is advantageous in the sense that you can do what you want since you are not limited by the program, only by your ability to draw and your imagination. The downside is that ability to draw, which not that many people have. My drawing skills are not especially good, so I prefer using computer programs.

b)      Finding a program and learning it. Again, this is a matter of personal taste and experience. I only know MSPaint, Paint.Net and Photoshop, of which Photoshop is the best, but one can do a lot with Paint.Net as well. And Paint.Net is free to download, as well as easier to learn than Photoshop, so it is definitely a good starting point. Once you have the program – experiment. Most of those programs allow you to undo as many actions as you want to, so there is no harm in trying out different functions and seeing what happens.

c)      Having a good base map. By “base map” I mean the map of the world (or the part of the world one is interested in), with the main geographical features drawn. Such maps may vary in detail – some only show coastlines, while some have coastlines, rivers and mountains, as well as country borders. Sometimes the base map is visible in the final map, sometimes it is completely covered – the latter situation happens when there is no suitable base map for the style one wants the map to have. Therefore, I usually prefer my base maps to consist of two layers – one very simple that I can easily draw on, and another with a lot of detail, so I can use it as a reference for where various geographical features are.

d)     Composition. The map serves two different kinds of purposes. The purpose it serves in the world it depicts may be varied, but it will be some combination of information and entertainment. In our world, such a map can also be used to inform and/or entertain. The proportions of these two sides are different, but I suppose that most maps are primarily informative in their worlds, and primarily entertaining in ours (the informative purpose it can have is usually limited to being an illustration for a fantasy tale, which is an entertainment by itself). Therefore, the map should be considered as a piece of visual art. And when creating visual art, one needs to pay a lot of attention to its composition. As with world-building, volumes can be written and actually are written about composition – it is useful to familiarise oneself with the at least the basic principles. A map will be more visually appealing if the most important elements are located close to the centre but not exactly in it; also there should be a balance between dark and light areas, between detailed and vague areas, etc. More detailed and “heavier” elements should be arrayed closer to the bottom of the image – if that is not possible, a solution may be achieved by placing the legend and title in appropriate places. As said before, familiarising oneself with the basics of composition works wonders.

e)      Taking breaks when working. Sometimes you may get stuck with some details when drawing a map, even though you thought you had everything in your head. The best thing to do is to wait a while until that detail pops into your head. Don’t force something in that place which you may later regret. You can try several things, but if none of them feels right – leave it and wait. After all, you are doing this for yourself, there is nobody rushing you, so let your creativity flow at its natural speed.

f)       Research. Yet another topic which may warrant a separate article, but I will simply state my attitude. Researching our world’s history is good, but that should not overshadow your idea. Of course, having Japan colonise Western Africa in the 16th century is more than a little bizarre, but if you really feel like doing such a map – go ahead. Then again, if you decide to aim for plausibility, research is key. Another important task that research helps with is that only by looking at historical maps (both at how they look as works of art and how the situations they depict have arisen) you can learn the tiny details that make maps look realistic.


6. Conclusion, or “What the map was this all about?”

I have already written more than three thousand words – probably the longest piece of text I ever wrote in one go. If you have read this much – thank you for your patience. All this may seem daunting, but I will again point out that it is actually much easier than it looks on paper. Also, this essay is not intended to be a primer on how to start making maps, nor is it the one and only absolute truth. This is the way I think about map making, nothing more. This, however, does not mean that this is not open for debate – if you have any comments about this, feel free to drop a line and say what you think. It may help me improve, and that would be a great thing.


Until next time, may your maps be plentiful and unique.

P.S. in case you still have no idea what is going on, here you will find most of my better cartographic creations. Also, check the people I am watching on DA, most of them are also brilliant mapmakers, much better than me.



Leave a Reply

El. pašto adresas nebus skelbiamas.