Art & Cartography

What do you first keep in mind when you create a new map?

Clarity, style, and scale. I'm sure there are other things I'm unconsciously doing as I approach a new map, but these three things are often on my mind as I create maps. If you were to ask someone creating real maps back in the Renaissance, their answers would be different depending on the purpose of the map. Since my maps are mostly used as something to elucidate the text of a novel, my main purpose is Clarity. Clarity trumps both style and scale. The map needs to be usable to those reading the book. One shouldn't have to search too much to find what they're looking for before they dive back into reading. I would approach a map that's meant as a poster differently. At that point, the map is meant to be viewed and enjoyed as a piece of art first, but when you only have six inches by nine inches, readers can only tolerate small font sizes and endless names up to a certain point. Before I begin a map, I try to figure out the style. Oftentimes I'm basing it on maps I've seen at museums, on the internet, or in private collections. What fits with the culture who produced the map? Would they use the tools and techniques I'm simulating as I create the map? Who is creating this map? And for whom? It's a bit like method acting. You've get inside the map's history. As a kid, I'd make pirate maps, and then I'd burn the edges. What I think about now that I didn't think about then is this: what is the story behind the map having the burns? Why is this stain here? Why are these fold marks there? Scale is important, especially if the author/client wants to be able to use the map to judge distances accurately in their world. So I'm always looking for hints in the text that tell me about distances and time it takes to travel from one point to another. Style trumps accuracy in scale. I'm not worried about someone being able to pull out their sextant and use my map to sail to some fantasy land--some of the old maps weren't that accurate anyway, but they look really cool. Ancient maps were often created by people who hadn't been to the places they were depicting. They didn't know the distances between Alexandria and Constantinople, but they might know from sailors that there were this many cities between the two destinations. So, they'd just equally space out the ports between the two cities on the map. It didn't mean that there was an equal distance between the ports, but as a sailor, at least you knew which port to look for next and how many ports there were between places. So, making the map look cool in a distinct style is on my mind more than clarity, even, but in the end, clarity wins over style, and style most often wins over scale.

When you create maps, do you keep in mind real world geology and geography?

All the time, and I'm still learning. I made mistakes as a young cartographer that I wouldn't have made had I known more about geology and geography, and I'm sure there are mistakes I'm making right now that I just don't know about. Digging into real maps and into the geographic history of real places helps me see where I'm deficient in my skills. You don't have to know all about the geology of your own made-up world before you make maps. Usually you just place a mountain range where it looks cool and then later on figure out reasons for that range to be there, but it doesn't hurt to know, for example, where mountains are most likely to appear on a landmass. Look at Hadley cells for deserts and trade winds and westerlies for macro wind patterns and desert locations. Figure in El Niño and La Niña. But don't get bogged down in the details.

Where do you seek inspiration when creating a map?

I lurk sometimes on a website called cartographersguild.com and glean tricks and tips from the cartographers there who are making some of the coolest maps I've ever seen. I'm often combing DeviantArt and artist's blogs and looking at how they create their lines or color their pieces. I am most often looking to mapmakers from all over the world in all time periods of the world and seeing what they did. I recently visited a private map collection and talked to the curator about the types of paper and inks that were used on specific maps. That single visit continues to blow my mind and change the way I go about creating maps that look like they come from real historical periods.

What advice do you give new mapmakers?

My previous answers above do have a lot of advice for new mapmakers. Learn as much as you can about cartography, geology, and geography, but don't let your research get in the way of actually creating your own maps. The process of creation is where you're going to run into the problems, the answers of which (when you discover them) will make you a better mapmaker.

What are some common mistakes mapmakers should avoid?

I presented at a convention a few years ago about the seven deadly sins of fantasy cartography. I'm sure there are more than just the seven, but the list is a good place to start when figuring out what not to do on your own maps. (Caveat: Sometimes an author will ask you create the map a certain way, despite these mistakes. I've got several maps out there with the same mistakes I'm about to outline: sometimes the author asked me to keep things that way, other times I've made the mistake all on my own. The point here is this, even if you make the mistake, it's not the end of the world. You can always retcon the mistake by saying something like, "But the in-world cartographer who made that map didn't know there was a river there!) The Seven Deadly Sins of Fantasy Cartography

  1. A map without a purpose. Who created this map? Who commission it? Why? (This could be as simple as: "I'm a fantasy writer and need to know where everything is so I can write my stinking book.) You can break some of the rules if it serves the purpose of the map.
  2. The scale is unintentionally off.
  3. Mountains or landforms that don't follow natural laws. For example, a landmass that looks too perfectly like a dragon or a range of mountains that are a perfect line north to south (unless this is the intentional style of the map), but mountains aren't formed naturally in perfect lines.
  4. Rivers that flow uphill.
  5. Climates and biomes placed where they likely wouldn't form in reality. (Along with this are the planets that are all one biome. George Lucas got away with this one, but that doesn't mean it's true-to-life.)
  6. Placing towns and cities where they don't make logical sense. (Ie. Nowhere near a fresh source of water.)
  7. Borders that aren't consistent with their time period. National borders that are straight lines are relatively new. Look at something like the borders of states in the Holy Roman Empire. They look like puzzle pieces.

Can I hire you to make maps/symbols/illustrations/etc for me?

That's kind of you to ask, and I'm flattered, but I'm retired from freelance now. All my extra time is spent with my family and working on my own creative projects. Thank you for your interest. Check out my list of other cartographers whose work I admire. Maybe one of them will have openings in their schedules to create for you the map of your dreams.

What advice do you have for authors looking for illustrations or maps?

I usually suggest a few things to authors looking for cover artists. I say to check DeviantArt or ArtStation and find an artist whose style you like and then look at their friends list and also their favorites list. A professional artist often has other professional artists as friends. You can then find a few you like and then send them messages asking if they'd like to work with you. Otherwise, sometimes you can license existing images with or without changes. Another suggestion is to see what other artists are being used by independent authors, and if you like the art style for those books, then you can look that artist up--their name is usually either on the cover or the copyright page--and find their site. Commissioning art isn't cheap. You might be able to find some willing to license a piece to you for a few hundred dollars or more, but commissioning professional art is likely to cost you at least a grand and most times more. That doesn't count the typography design. Finding a map artist would take a similar process, but I would add looking at the CartographersGuild.com in addition to the other two sites mentioned above.