Fantasy Cartography for Writers (part 1)

I’ve been working on a fantasy/sci-fi trilogy set in my Ashterai Universe for most of the year. Each of the three books is set in a different time period on the same planet with a host of characters, a touch of the numinous and a hint at something more than just a single world orbiting an angry sun. Oddly the most vital thing to help me write has been the simplest: a map.

The Changing of the Sun is set just prior to a violent solar storm which has the potential to force the planet’s dominant species into extinction. Their only hope is an Oracle who has foreseen a place of sanctuary far to the north, in the caverns where the star-kissed Kashinai believe they were first hewn from gold-veined stone. Getting there will be a dangerous

The Water Children is set a good millennia later and focuses on the rediscovery of a forgotten world, much changed by Firefall, melted ice caps and newly settled ring of debris which now marks the sky, along with a second moon.

The Calling is the final book, set in 2021C.E, on a world restored with cities, shuttle ports, temples and in the middle of it’s second golden age but lacking in one important thing: the guidance of their religious leader.

Now the important thing about these books is there was a lot of traveling from point A to B. The Changing of the Sun, in particular, sees a mad rush against the clock and for that I needed maps. Now I can’t draw to save my life so I enlisted Rob Antonishen, a fantasy cartographer, to help me.

I emailed him my crappily drawn maps that were a couple of years old and had almost no useful information on them, along with my text-based notes on the locations of cities, their names and other geological bits and pieces that were important to the plot. I also explained I wanted a map that was commemorative, designed by a cartographer to commemorate a religious event, the symbolic ‘this is the land you govern’ map from a culture which calligraphy and the written word as the highest art form.

Fantasy cartography isn’t new, of course, from Lord of the Rings to Throne of the Crescent Moon, maps help readers to connect with the universe, to make unfamiliar locales a little more familiar. It’s always fun when there’s a heroic journey involved, be it a quest to dump a shiny bracelet in fiery nastiness or running from doom.

The weird thing is, as we went through the process turning a beautiful sketch into an actual map, it forced me to think more about the whys and hows. Why did this particularly valley as far from the capital as possible offer the only sanctuary? How would they get there? When offered two roads, why take one which goes through the desert in mid-summer? These questions shaped my story, almost as much as the finished map allowed me to visualise the places my band of refugees were going to be passing through.

Come back next week when I’ll talk more about the next map, in which everything that we created must be destroyed.

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