Cartography: Introduction

I remember the first time I drew a map for a fantasy story. I began it in my ninth-grade English class, on the back of a handout about, among other things, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and I still have it. It’s not all that fabulous — for one thing, I apparently managed to provide myself with a river which runs from one coast to the other, straight through a range of mountains — but I had fun.

So I went on drawing maps, some more detailed than others, and along the way I learned some things. I got rather an unpleasant surprise, therefore, when I sold Doppelganger and pulled out the map to see if it might be a useful thing to put in the front of the book (redrawn by someone more artistically talented than I, of course), only to find that it was a bleeding, illogical mess. Apparently I’d drawn it before I started learning those helpful things about how landscapes work. I had to rework the entire thing, because a map would be a useful thing to include in a book where people spend much of their time traveling, but at the same time I had to make sure that all of the towns and the like stayed the same distances apart, because travel times mattered a lot. In short, it was a giant headache I hope never to repeat.

In the interests of perhaps saving at least one poor writerly soul from the trouble I gave myself, I’ve decided to post a series of essays on cartography. Let me define what I mean by that by defining what I don’t mean. I don’t mean the artistic aspect of it, or at least not at the moment; I don’t consider myself an artist, and many of my maps are executed more as functional scribbles than anything else. I also don’t mean the meaning of the map, i.e. how it relates to the people there (or, again, at least not at the moment). This series is at least going to begin as a discussion of how landscapes fit together. Where do you find rivers, mountains, bays, hills, and what shapes do they take? I’m far from an expert on geography or geology; I’ll admit that quite readily. Corrections to the information I post here, or additions that might be useful, are (as always) most welcome. This is just the stuff I’ve learned in my own research, for my own purposes, gathered together in one place (hell, as much for my use as anyone else’s).

Next: Watersheds