How to Make a Map of Your Fictional Setting

Often, the part of the writing process I enjoy the most is not writing. After living in Cornwall for three years while I was studying creative writing, I knew I wanted my story to be set somewhere on the coast.

I couldn’t get the narrow cobbled streets and the mesmerising shore out of my mind, and I wanted to write about them. But I did not want to base my story in a real place, so I decided to make up my own.

Of course, I could make it all up as I went and no one would probably notice any inconsistencies, but it made me uncomfortable no knowing where everything was. I needed to map out my characters route to work, to know where the train station was and how long it took them to get from A to B.

So I decide to make a map.

If you, like me, you fancy creating a map of your fictionalised setting, I’m here to give you ONE of the many ways in which you can achieve this.


What you will need:

  • 3 sheets of paper
  • various writing instruments: pencil, pen, a light grey marker
  • paints of any kind (I used diluted gouache in lieu of watercolours)
  • paintbrushes of various sizes
  • a smartphone with a camera or a scanner
  • a photo manipulation software with an overlay effect (I used Photoshop, but you can look for a free alternative which will get the job done).

Steps:

  1. Think about your town: what are the particular locations you need to make sure you include in your story? They can be places such as your characters’ homes, spots in town which they visit regularly (workplace, shops, parks) and any significant landmarks (town hall, beaches, museums). Make a list of all of them and try to think of where they are in relation to each other. Is your character’s commute to work 45 min by train? Then your characters either lives or works outside of town, or lives in a big city with lots of traffic.
  2. Find an online map generator. I used this one in order to get a ‘natural’ shape. None of us are cartographers, so you’re not expected to draw up a whole town all by yourself. Find inspiration where you can. I flipped through multiple iterations of coastal towns until I found one that I was happy with. I knew my setting was small, parallel to the coastline and that all the streets started in the centre of town. Once you find the most convenient one, save it and print it.
  3. Next, I recommend taping the print-out and a clean sheet of paper to a well-lit window. With a pencil, trace the general shape of the town, but did not worry too much about keeping all of the original details. They are not relevant. Instead, sit down with the minimal outline and begin to draw the main streets. For mine, I even outline the houses, but these may have been an ill-thought addition to my design because they took the best part of two hours to finish, albeit I do think it adds a bit more flair to the overall result. I also added a rail line, because it is referenced a few times in my novel. Draw any other details you think will help you, such as the windrose, a measuring unit etc. Trace over the pencil with a pen and mark out the main streets with the grey marker to make them stand out.
  4. The next step begins much like the previous one: take a new sheet of paper and trace the outline of the streets. This time, instead of meticulously outlining each house in the neighbourhood, apply some colour to the landscape. Don’t worry about finding the exact shade of green or blue. These details can be done in post.
  5. Lay the pages on a flat surface and take a picture of both maps (my recommendation is to use a mobile scanning app, there are some great free ones out there) and upload them onto your computer. Ensure they are straight and that you have captured the entire page. Crop out the margins until your flat surface isn’t showing anymore.
  6. I used Photoshop for this next step, but you can use any software which will allow you to overlay two images. (Canva is a great free option.) And then do just that! By taking the opacity down you can line up the two images so that the streets match up. If you want, this is where you can add other elements to your map – textures, street names and so on.
  7. Finally, play around with the colours and the contrast until you reach a result you are happy with, and… Ta-da!

I’m really happy with how mine turned out. It doesn’t serve any purpose other than to help me locate my characters and it probably won’t make it in the novel (it’s not exactly a work of art and I’m not writing an epic fantasy), but I still love having it.

Have you ever created/thought about creating a map for your setting? I’d love to read about it in the comments!

-A. C.

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