The first full-time job I had was as a designer at Lonely Planet Publications, where I drew maps and illustrations along with setting them out with the text of travel guidebooks. While I’d sketched out maps for the fun of it as a child, and examined the maps in the fantasy books I was reading, I hadn’t had any training in cartography. Learning on the job was fun, though drawing the same style of maps did become drudgery after a few years. Later, when I worked freelance as an illustrator and cartographer, there was a lot more variety and scope in the maps I got to draw.
The maps I draw for my own books are mostly hurried sketches, starting as a general idea with details being added as the worlds I create are fleshed out. When the time comes to change these sketches into maps to go into my books, what I learned while working at Lonely Planet comes in handy.
The most useful skill I learned was knowing how much detail can be put in a map that must fit on, at the most, a double page spread of a paperback novel, often using low quality paper and ink. How much detail can be put in? Not much!
My sketches tend to be about the same size as a double page spread of a paperback these days, and my final maps are drawn to fit that size. Any larger and they’d have to be shrunk to fit. Fine detail is likely to fill in, tiny labels are likely to become unreadable. I might still include a lot more detail in my sketch than will go on the finished map, but keeping it small helps remind me I’ve got limited space in the final version.
When I start creating the finished map, I also consider the look and style of it. In the early days of learning about cartography I used to sneer at the maps in fantasy novels, most which I considered badly drawn. Inconsistent scale, foolish little ‘witches hats’ mountains that didn’t show the true lie of the land, border lines that were obviously based more on convenience to the author than convincing geographic or political boundaries, awful, unreadable fonts, are just a small example of what made a poor map.
But then I began to look at historical maps, and I began to change my mind. I started to see that the errors and quaintness in those old maps was part of their charm, and in fact it was the static, obviously computer drawn maps that didn’t suit fantasy books.
So when I came to creating the finished maps for my own books, I aimed to make them look like someone living in the world of the story had drawn them. That way, the maps were part of the world building. They told the reader something about the level of technological advancement, and even the culture, of the setting.
This is why there is an architectural plan of the Guild grounds in the Black Magician Trilogy rather than a map. It was only at the last moment that the idea of including the label: “This plan is the property of the Magicians’ Guild of Kyralia and must not be removed from the Magicians’ Library” came to me, to give a sense of the disciplined world it came from.
In The Magician’s Apprentice I took this a step further, including a cartographer among the secondary characters who explored new ways to draw maps.
I’ve always felt that maps should not be essential to comprehending a story – there’s nothing more annoying that having to flick back and forth in order to follow the plot. The greatest sin is the map that shows (usually in a dotted line) the path of the characters, as this nearly always spoils the plot. Most maps are decorative – and since authors don’t have much control over their covers at least they can decide what the map is like.
But the best maps are those that add a little extra something to the experience of reading the book. Like the little hints I put into the text knowing that only those readers who read the books a second time will pick them up. A treat waiting for those who happen to look.