Mapping Your World

I realized it’s been a while since I did a world-building post. Earlier this summer, I was fleshing out the world for my latest WIP, so I thought I’d share a bit of that process.

Start with a Map...
It’s one of the oldest epic fantasy clichés in the book, but it works! I started with a basic map to identify:

- Country borders
- Cities and towns
- Key landmarks like mountains, rivers, lakes and forests
- Distances and travel times between places (I’ve calculated times on foot, on horseback and by sea for my various WIPs. It’s actually a blast and helps prevent plot holes related to timing.)

...Then Add Layers

This goes beyond just key landmarks. The physical layout of the land influences the type of dwellings, people and culture of an area.

What does each region focus on for jobs and money? Not only should this match up with the topography and culture you want, but it helps ensure the country (ies) as a whole have essential supplies like food and clothing. Is there enough fertile land for farming and food to sustain the population? Are there specific areas the lend themselves for mining, crafts, horse breeding, fishing?

If you’re creating a dystopian world or a world torn by revolution, a commerce map can help identify why there’s NOT enough of one particular supply or another.

How many people are in each city or village? Can those populations support themselves with the commerce around them? Once you have an approximate country population, you can use it to estimate army size if you need an army – about 5-7% of the overall population.
Here’s a great resource on calculating accurate population numbers (at least by early European standards):

I also do a separate battle map for each battle in my WIP. They tend to look like those old civil war battle maps, with dotted lines and arrows indicating troop advances and retreats.

This layer highlights who comes in where, in what waves, with what kind of numbers and weaponry, and when. Then, I overlay these on top of the topography, commerce and population maps to answer questions like:
  • How does the land affect the battle approach? Flat open grassland offers a far different battlefield than a thick forest or rocky mountainsides.
  • What types of supplies will be close at hand? If there’s something missing, how will the troops get it? From your villain’s perspective, how can you cut off those supply lines?
  • Will the battle take place in a highly populated area? If so, how will it affect the people who live there?

City Sketches
Okay, this one technically isn’t a map, but we all know that you can’t understand the real flavor of a city simply by reading its name on paper. NYC ain’t LA, and both are far from a small village in central Europe or a bustling city in India. That’s why I do a separate “character sketch” for each major city or place.

Is it rural, modern? What’s the architecture like? Is it a diverse place? What’s the overall attitude of the city? If you lived there, what would be the best and worst things about it?

So there you have it! I’ve found that using layers helps me not only create a world, but refine my plot, too. Plus, one of the best things about a map is that it’s visual. You can glance at it quickly and ensure that your scenes fit your world.

Good luck!


  1. My favorite part of world building has been the mythology! I have to say, though, map making is also a lot funner than I thought it'd be.

  2. THIS IS SO COOL! I used to love this sort of thing and it's something I should still represent visually rather than with an armful of scribbled notes.

    I'm bookmarking this so I can remember it for future reference :D

  3. M.E. - Ooh yes! The mythology and oral history of a world are at least as exciting to develop as a map. I love that part of the process, too!

    Miss Cole - Aw, thanks! This latest WIP was the first one where I actually had my world-building process down enough that it didn't come out as just a bunch of scribbled notes. For my previous stuff, I think you could literally have constructed the "worlds" from all my random post-it notes. :)

  4. Loved this post. Thanks for the gentle reminder for those who are busy building worlds. Your post is a resource that I will be coming back to again and again. :)

  5. Karen - I'm so glad! Aren't resources fantastic? I love 'em. Janice Hardy's blog (in my links list on the right) also has some great world-building tips.

  6. This is SO AWESOME! I'd love to do something like this with my WIP. That I haven't started yet. Even better, right? :D

  7. Chantele - I'd say it's perfect timing. :)

  8. I have given you an award on my blog,!

  9. Ms. Saba - Thanks! Hope it's useful.

    M.E. - Aw, thanks! I'll be sure to check it out and pass it on.