Worldbuilding: Setting & Maps

>This is part of an ongoing series about worldbuilding.

*     *     *

Last time I gave you my personal definition of worldbuilding and mentioned that next I’d be talking about settings (among other things) and processes I’ve used to develop them.

All right, then so here it goes.


Before, I’ve talked about The Importance of Setting in a story.  Where do you get setting ideas?  Largely from the real world, I imagine.

I started off being inspired by how American and European cities might have looked and functioned during the mid-1930s/pre-WWII era, actually.  (I don’t think this is an era that gets explored much in fantasy.)  I’m not writing about an alternate history, though, so this era only serves as an aesthetic and practical guide.  I was really inspired by artwork and photographs of actual places, as well.

Then I came up with some names for countries, brainstormed some general ideas about them and just flew off from there.  (Real helpful, huh?)  I’ll explain more.


It has helped me immensely to keep track of locations by creating a map, so this might work best if I showed you a couple:

This one basically shows important geographical regions–deserts, rivers, mountain ranges, oceans, etc.–in my WIP.  I used Adobe Photoshop to create most of it, though I used AutoCAD, a computer-aided drafting program, to do the little scale.  (CAD is good for exact measurements ‘n stuff.  I often use it to draft floor plans and other similar drawings.)

The compass, however, is not mine.  Honestly, I don’t remember where I got it from.  (Does that make me a bad person?)  I could have made one in CAD, though.  Hm, guess I was just being lazy!

Same story for this one, only it focuses more on the city names and more clearly delineates the nations with color.  I separated these things from the geographical regions to keep it from getting too cluttered (though, this isn’t all that necessary).

To tell you the truth, neither of these drawings is complete.  I really need to go back and update them with new references I’ve made in the story.  (I tend to keep a lot of info up in my noggin ’cause I don’t wanna have to keep making corrections to everything when I change my mind.)  But still, it was a good starting point.  I know where everything is located and if I need to I can measure approximate distances.  This helps for calculating realistic traveling times, which is important, I think, when you’re writing about an aviatrix–or train travel, or any other kind of travel, really.

(That’s another thing I’ve had to do is research typical car and train speeds in the 20s and 30s.  Usually I just pick one car and train model, look up the specs and use those as a starting point.  Of course, it’s all approximated.  I don’t want to get too anal about that stuff.)

Gosh, I wish I could find that link that got me started on these maps!  Suffice it to say, it’s a fairly detailed process that would not fit very well into a little blog post…


So there ya go.  I would like to go back and try some new things I learned, to make the mountains pop out more, for example (that person’s map on the link has way better mountains than I do), but that’s something for another day.

What else can you use to draw maps if you don’t have Adobe Photoshop?

Well, you can always draw it by hand.  Do a couple of drafts in pencil, trace over the final one with marker on vellum, trace or marker paper for the final version; splash some color on it here or there… (You cand do that on the back side of the paper so it won’t bleed/smear with the marker, unless you do the marker last and just use pencil first.)  For color, I have these really awesome (though pricey) art markers by Chartpak that work a little like watercolors, the way the colors kind of spread.  Though, they smell really strong.  You can get a little high off of them.

I’m kidding, but they are very strong-smelling.

You could also leave it in black-and-white, which can make for a very graphic effect.  Using different line weights really adds dimension–if you’re interested in the more artsy aspects, that is.

If not, that’s cool, too.

Ultimately, though, I think maps should be used to help the writer visualize where everything in his story is taking place.  Doesn’t matter if they’re pretty or not, especially if they’re only for you.

Setting As Character

As it has often been said, setting can become a kind of character itself in your story.

I’ve found this to be the case in Element 7.  The geographical features actually have a direct relationship to historical events which were initiated by certain characters way back when.  These events have effected the present-day geography.  For example, why do you think the deserts seem to fan out from Daemon’s Pass, just southwest of the Great Sea where floats a collection of scattered islands?  And why is that region called “Daemon’s Pass” anyway?

Hm… The world may never know.  (Especially if I don’t finish editing this beast, heh.)

Finding Inspiration

I find that artwork provides a lot of inspiration for settings in my story.  They even give me some scene ideas.  Here’s one that inspired my vision for Chandra City, Apexia (which is only labeled “Chandra” on my map, so I better fix that, too):

“Autumn’s Glow,” by Alexei Butirskiy

(This artist’s work is so beautiful.  I’m inspired by most of it, actually.)

I imagine that the area my protagonist Voi lives in looks a lot like this.  She stays in a townhouse of yellow brick and light-colored stone in Chandra City on Blithe Street, where an electric trolley runs by.  Also, it’s in the latter half of autumn at the beginning of the novel, so I like the image of there being golden leaves on the trees and sidewalks at this time.  This is exactly where Chapter 1 starts off–someplace peaceful to contrast the psychological horror of Voi’s condition.

Her home is her refuge from the world.

In Chapter 1, she is experiencing…what I will call a “private state of heightened awareness” as she soaks in a clawfoot tub, avoiding her meds…just generally being a naughty emelesiac.  Kind of like this:

Original author unknown.

(But trust me, it’s not what you think.  Though, I certainly want you to believe it is.  I’m hoping that the intent behind this scene thrives off reader assumptions.  I’d like to share it sometime, once I’ve shopped it around a bit.)

Meh, I could mention something about Borellia, too, but you know how I am with words.  I will say, though, that the ancient ruins and antiquity of Italian cities have been a big inspiration for my vision of Borellia, as have French towns with half-timber structures from Medieval times.

And Airships.  You just have to have airships in a 1930s-inspired world.  (This was during the latter years of their Golden Age, after all.)

So that’s kind of how I think about settings.  Next time: languages!  (Oh yes.)

How About You?

Do you like to use maps to aid with fleshing out your story?  If so, do you keep them pretty simple or like to deck them out?  Also, where do you tend to find inspiration for the settings in your storyworld(s)?


8 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Setting & Maps

  1. >First of all, you've got some great talent with the maps. I have no graphic design skills at all, so I'm not able to make any of those.My world is set in an alternative Earth. So fortunately, it's a little easier for the reader to understand my geography. Nihon is Japan, Xia is our China, Albion is England, Ruskia is Russia. But I would love to still have maps. I printed out a blank world map and just put in my own borders and stuff.OK, I LOVE airships. Love them. One of my main protagonists is an airship pilot. My world is most definitely steam punk . Trains that don't need tracks (I call them steam land cruisers), steam powered roadsters and cars, cycles, etc. Even a submarine.So the world you built is what I'm very much into. I do look at artwork of all sorts for inspiration for the environments I'm writing in. I've even used Google Earth.


  2. >Thanks! And I think that's smart, printing out a map and marking your own changes. No complicated map-making req'd!"One of my main protagonists is an airship pilot."Aw, sookie-sookie now… I definitely have to read your novel now. I always wanted to before, but now I just *have* to.Also, Google Earth is AMAZING. The world will never be the same b/c of it.


  3. These maps are pretty nice… If you’ve got a lot of free-time on your hands (yeah, right) and really want to punch it up to the nth degree, or just show it off to a clan of cartographers, you might think about taking these over to and checking out some of the tutorials and other tools there dedicated to making maps look spectacular. If you’re already familiar with Photoshop, there’s a pretty good photoshop-using cartographer’s community there.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve been active on the forum. If you do go, you’ll have to sign up and join to get use out of it (images can only be viewed by members). There, you’ll find folks like “Ascension” to be expert photoshop-using mapmakers, and excellent sources of help. You can also just show off your maps and get some attention and oohs and ahhs from other mapmakers. Tell them “Karro” sent you… 🙂


  4. As we were discussing over on Stephen’s blog, I don’t use maps (I will create a map of the country where my stories take place, but I haven’t done it yet), but I do create floor plans for some of the mystery stories.

    They (the floor plans, not the mysteries) are pretty basic, as you can see here:

    (And this conversation has made me realize that one story was supposed to get a floor plan, which I even created, but I apparently never uploaded it. Now, where did it get to…)


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