Authors start to build a world in a wide range of ways. Some consume media for inspiration - books, movies, TV shows, video games. Others spend hours going down Google rabbit holes, cobbling together a patchwork of advice from across the Internet. There are traditionalists, who begin with a pen and paper, and artists, who start with images and ideas.
I started with a map.
I've loved maps my whole life. Maps have always helped me visualize what a place might be like, even if I will never set foot there. I have a framed map of Christopher Paolini's Alagaësia in my living room, and taught 6th grade world geography for two years with more than 10 maps posted all over my classroom.
For me, beginning with a map was the only logical step. How could I know what was happening in the world if I didn't even know what the world looked like? From there, it's been a long journey to putting together the official map of Summer Twilight - and I can't wait to share part of that process with you.
I've always had a good idea of what Rosemoor looked like. In my head, it's a beautiful, idyllic valley hidden in white-peaked mountains with romantic influences. I knew that Iera, the capital of Rosemoor, was nestled against mountain peaks and beside a sparkling lake, and that the Ierian Castle stood atop a hill nearby. From there, I started building outwards.
I'm a geography nerd, and the first law of geography is "everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things". Basically, you find similar environments together. There's a reason that humid jungles don't usually give way to arid deserts, and that deep forests don't suddenly turn into arid grassland. On earth, mountains form in a predictable way (usually tectonic plates and/or glaciers are involved), and rivers flow downhill.
How does all that apply to a fantasy world? It depends. Maybe the physics in your world is fundamentally different, and the world is just a series of islands floating in the ether. Perhaps there is no water on your planet, which would understandably make a number of things quite complicated. It doesn't matter what choices you make - they just need to make sense for your world.
I went with a classic: high fantasy, but instead of Tolkien's square mountains around Mordor, some more natural boundaries. I wound up with something that mostly fits the bill - but any respectable geologist or geographer would probably still take great issue with it (I officially claim creative license).
Above, you can see a series of photos I took throughout my most recent mapmaking process. I used a software called Inkarnate, which is where the gorgeous art comes from. I personally can only draw stick figures.
I started with a landmass; in Summer Twilight, we only see some of the Not-So-New-World. The part we come to know is next to the Viridian Sea - a large continent with mountains in the north and scattered across the land. Rivers criss-cross the western portion, flowing from the mountain slopes down to the Viridian Sea. At first, I used these physical features almost as placeholders, figuring out where I wanted different features in relation to one another, rather than going for accuracy or realism.
Then, I started painting in what the land looked like. The world possesses something similar to an equatorial region - snow and ice in the north, warmth and desert in the south. I also knew I wanted a lot of terrain variety that had to flow at least somewhat logically. I started with my desert - one of the more extreme land types in the world - and built out, transitioning to fields, forests, and swamp, then snowy mountains.
Finally came the fine-tuning and details. This was both the most rewarding and most frustrating part of the project - everything had to be just right. Where the cities were relative to one another, then how big the rivers were compared to the cities. Where trees were scattered naturally, and how the mountains had formed. Ever the geographer, I added a compass rose as one of the final touches (though no scale bar, my apologies to geographers everywhere), then labeled my provinces and nations.
Mapmaking is both an art and a science. The mapmaker has to understand the basics of geology and geography, so the map makes "sense" to the viewer. But beyond that, it becomes an art form. How does the map show countries - through lined boundaries, or more organically? Is it important to label every single feature? How do people travel - do you need to draw in a road network? Every question leads to three more. Ultimately, only your intuition can tell you what's right.
To check out more detailed photos of each province in the Mezrani Empire, as well as a short description, visit my world here.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!