Happy to bring you another post from Dylan Luongo, who tweets @vanhelsquirrel, today. Check out his website, Vanhelquirrel’s Maps and Modules. And check out his first post on five reasons to play roleplaying games if you missed it! Today’s he’s talking about how he made a map of Wells, the setting of my upcoming novel Blue and White.

That’s right, it’s a Blue and White sneak peek — your third. Check out the first sneak peek and the second sneak peek to learn more about Blue and White, its characters, and its world. For now, suffice to say that it’s my upcoming mystery novel!

This sneak peek doubles as a process piece — about the design process, specifically pertaining to map-making. You writers out there have probably sketched a map once or twice! I’m lucky enough to have a master map-maker to do it for me. Note that this map is mostly so that I can keep track of where things are in Wells — it’s not meant to be hyper-realistic, although I think that the result is fairly realistic! I’m going to show you the map first, so if you came here just for the sneak peek, feel free to leave afterwards. But I would read Dylan’s insights! You might be inspired to try making a map for your own story, or just for fun. — Laura


A map of Wells, Massachusetts

a map of Wells

The design

Before going into the specifics of mapping Wells, Massachusetts, I want to touch on my own design process. Everyone has a preferred way to operate, to create. I happen to be a “planner.” I like having a tangible, clear layout and design before beginning work on a project. Usually this amounts to having a couple drafts on paper before I start work on the map in the software. Not everyone’s like me in this regard, but this is how I work best!

My design process

My design process has three broad steps.

  1. Planning.
  2. Designing in a chosen software.
  3. Finalizing the design for export.

My process is, of course, fluid to an extent. All plans need to be able to adapt and so does your process. Some ideas don’t need as many early drafts. Some are more of a technical challenge in which you have to do something a bit unorthodox. They require more time spent finalizing the project. I’d advise anyone with a creative process to remain flexible — think of your process more as a guideline and less as a checklist.

During planning, I make my paper drafts and try to settle on a basic layout for the project. I typically do two or three paper drafts, though a particularly complex project might call for more. This is when I will look at photos or art relevant to the concept at hand. I might draw concept art as well and may also look at maps made by other people to get a sense of how they chose to approach a concept. When it comes to design, steer clear of imitation, but recognize that you can certainly learn lessons from obseriving how others approach things.

Once I have a couple drafts, and a good sense of the concept, I’m ready to move forward.

During the design stage, I take my paper drafts and move the project into the software. I start by laying out all of the major elements and outlining the terrain. A major element is anything whose position determines the location of smaller elements. Think mountains, lakes, rivers, cities, or other settlements, depending on the scale. When I have all of that down, I can move into the “detailing” phase of the design. A major part of detailing is placing the less important, “filler,” objects. But another aspect of detailing focuses on adding variety to the map. Making the rivers meander, adding more hills and other natural features. Essentially, you want to add flavor to each section of your map.

During finalization, I start giving the map its final aesthetic touches. I place the labels during this step, choosing good fonts and setting the text. If the map calls for it, I also place a “map border” as well as a compass rose. I tend to place my scalebar last, mostly so that it doesn’t obscure anything on the map. With a presentable map ready to go, I export the map to my desired image file type (typically a “.png”). Then it’s off to my website or to its future owner!

Designing a map of Wells, Massachusetts

Laura’s rough draft with my rough draft over it.

For making the map for Wells, Massachusetts from Blue and White, I pretty much followed the track I’ve outlined above. One difference was that Laura made the first paper draft. I took her draft and began to expand beyond the locations mentioned in the story. The second draft didn’t change much of what she’d put down. I mostly spent time placing other locations you’d find in a town — the various schools, for example. I also added a lot of the roads during this step, which helped to establish a good scale.

Wells is based off of several suburban towns around where Laura and I live. (You can read more about the setting in the first Blue and White sneak peek.) I spent some time browsing Google Maps of the towns to get a sense of features they shared.

I noticed that these towns have only a small number of straight roads. They tend to meander a bit like rivers, wrapping around pockets of houses. I decided to incorporate this into the layout of Wells.

Many suburban towns in Massachusetts also have little groves, fields, or woodland sprinkled throughout them. I had never realized just how many little pockets of trees or small fields actually exist in many suburban towns. I included this, too.

After working to these elements into my draft, I felt I had a strong layout. In terms of time, the planning stage of this took around three or four hours. Laura had done a lot of the work already when she wrote Blue and White.

With my paper draft in hand, I moved into the software. The program I used is called Campaign Cartographer 3 Plus, which is a CAD (computer aided design) software meant to produce maps of all kinds.

I started off by placing the lake. Because the lake is pivotal to the story, it determines many of the story’s other locations. But it’s also good cartographic practice to place bodies of water first whenever possible.

Next, I placed the highway and main roads followed by all of the named locations. This stage took about three hours. I then moved into the detailing phase, placing parks and wooded areas throughout the town. I finished my detailing by placing a large number of “random” houses to populate the streets.

By this point I had a map that could pass for a street map on Google. I sat down with Laura to make sure she was happy with the result. A couple tweaks later, I was ready to begin finalizing the map.

The hardest part was naming all of the streets I had laid down, since I’d made the decision early on that I wanted to make sure every street was named. It would help give the map a detailed and “real” quality. Rattling of dozens of decent sounding street names is not as easy as you might think. Roughly an hour later, I had finished with the streets and moved on to labeling the major locations. I created a gazetteer to the right side with each location’s name, placed my scalebar, and built a little title box. Wells now had a map!

Mapmaking software

Are you thinking about making your own map?

As with anything, do some research first. Learn about the various elements of maps and how they’re used in mapmaking.

Then, when you have a basic idea of what makes a map, you need to take a look at the available software. I’m not going to list every mapmaking program I know, but I will quickly talk about what to pay attention for when getting started.

First, you should understand the two main types of cartographic programs available today. There are “raster-like” programs, which resemble image editors like photoshop. They use brushes, preset drawing tools with alterable settings to edit the actual pixels of an image.

Then there are CAD programs, which use a series of objects to render an image. You may have heard of CAD programs before — engineers and architects often use them when creating drafting plans.

It’s safe to say that CAD programs are the more complex type. Unless you have experience with such programs, it’s best to start with a raster-like one.

Pay close attention to the intended use of the software. Many cartographic programs are designed to create all types of maps, but some have limited purposes. You should choose a program designed to build your intended type of map. Regional, continental, local, settlement, or world maps are just a few types. Programs that are great for one type might have limited use for others.

Once you’ve chosen your software, try building something small. Spend a little time learning the software upfront before actually building whatever awesome map is floating around in your head!

Conclusion

I had a lot of fun building this map for several reasons. It was nice to have the opportunity to map the setting of Laura’s novel. But it was also the first time in a long time that I had worked on a modern setting map. I mostly build fantasy maps, the kind of thing you’d use for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. (Check out my post here about roleplaying games.) Occasionally, I work on a “future” map, something you might find in a sci-fi novel or other futuristic setting. But even those tend to be starkly different from modern themed maps.

Modern maps have an interesting design. They mostly focus on presenting information and layout in the form of a street map. You rarely find stylized drawings of trees, mountains, or even buildings. The symbols used are utilitarian in many respects. Laura and I settled on using a modern street map style before drafting anything — a style reminiscent of the old road-map books people used to keep in cars, or the ones you can find now Google Maps. I had to spend some time creating workable assets — the house icons, the labels, etc. — in order to build the map.

I hope you enjoyed this short discussion about mapmaking, building Wells, and a brief explanation of how you can start on your own mapmaking journey. If you have questions, please feel free to comment below. I’ll gladly expand on any of the points above and can recommend software for your specific ideas, too!

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If you enjoyed hearing about how Dylan designed a map of Wells, read his other post about roleplaying games. You might also like this Q&A session, in which Laura discusses her writing process.

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