Tag Archives: design

Mapping Resources for Authors

Mapping Resources for Authors (and GMs)

“But I can’t draw…”

How many times have we heard that from our fellow fantasy authors? It’s said when we discuss web design, book cover design, email marketing design, cover design, but it gets said most often when we discuss map designs for our various fantastical projects. Fantasy readers love maps. They draw fan into your world—and while they’re not a requirement, they’ve become expected to some extent.

That expectation is what stresses folks out—but there are solutions out there that can help! There are all sorts of tool that will get you a useful map so you can get back to writing. To help, I’ve put together this post. Here you’ll find all sorts of mapping resource from the simple to the complex. This will not be a definitive guide, merely a handy set of tools I’ve used that might empower you.

If you have a suggestion for a tool I should check out or an article or guide I should read, feel free to leave a comment or send an email to hello@kmalexander.com. I’ll be happy to update the post after I check it out for myself.


Contents

  1. The Lazy Way — Map Generation
  2. The Hybrid Solution — Easy Map Creators
  3. The Time Sink — Making Your Own Maps
  4. Further Resources


The Lazy Way — Map Generation

If you are not picky about your map but want a base to annotate consider one of these free map-generation tools. Please note, most of these are fine for personal use, but you should check their licensing options if you plan on including these in your manuscript. (I highly recommend you hire an illustrator to redraw your map when you get to that point. You’ll get a style that fits your book and you’ll avoid any licensing lawsuits.)

Uncharted Atlas

In-depth mapping generation focus on creating realistic and random landscapes. If you’re not picky, these are an excellent starting point. I highly recommend running through the whole tutorial to see how the process works. Be sure to follow the Uncharted Atlas Twitter account for new maps generated hourly.

Upsides: Unique maps that pay attention to realistic geology
Downsides: Small images, no easy way to download high-resolution files.

Azgaar Fantasy Map Generator

Azgaar’s Fantasy Map Generator

In-depth mapping generator that allows for a wide variety of themes and customization. Azgaar has a great blog where he goes into detail about his process, and I’d encourage you to check it out.

Upsides: Loads of customization, download of editable vector .svg files
Downsides: Bit buggy. Occasionally crashes some browsers.

Planet Map Generator

Planet Map Generator

When you’re looking for something a bit larger, this planet map generator helps you expand to a global scale. Simple choose a seed and then customize to your heart’s content.

Upsides: Loads of customization, a lot of customizability
Downsides: Maps can be a little ugly

GM World Map

GM World Map

An expansive generated map that allows for custom levels of zoom. Loads of options and an excellent base for world maps.

Upsides: Lots of random generations make for unique maps, WYSIWYG saving
Downsides: No customizability

Medieval Fantasy City Generator

Watabou’s Medieval Fantasy City Generator

If you’re looking for generating something a bit smaller than continents or worlds, then this city generator is perfect. It allows for some style customization and a few other little treats.

Upsides: Highly detailed, fun visual customization, WYSIWYG saving
Downsides: Occasional strangeness w/ output. Oddly shaped buildings. No zoom.


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The Hybrid Solution — Easy Map Creators

Often, we authors have something particular in mind, and auto-generated maps won’t quite work out for us. But it would be nice to have some sort of program that achieves the style we want without learning cartography. The tools below are designed for just that.

Roll for Fantasy

Roll for Fantasy

Using tile-based imagery, this site allows you to create a wide variety of maps. Tiles can be rotated and mirrored creating a lot of customizability.

Upsides: Loads of customization.
Downsides: Maps can be a little plain. Time-consuming.

Inkarnate

This is one of my favorites. Inkarnate lets you draw maps quickly and effectively, and they look good. The Pro account allows for even more customizability.

Upsides: Easy to use. Lots of options.
Downsides: One specific style, it’s a good one, but a limit.

Worldspinner

World Spinner

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of political borders and imperial expansion, then World Spinner (subscription-based) might be the right fit. Plus it includes a neat Heraldry Designer as well.

Upsides: Focus on countries and borders for fantasy. Heraldry designer.
Downsides: Not totally customizable.


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The Time Sink — Making Your Own Maps

Sometimes auto-generated images won’t hack it. Either you have a specific world in mind, or you want complete control over the placement of mountain ranges, cities, towns, harbors, and rivers of your world. I get it, I too suffer from that sickness. Thankfully, there’s a lot out there to help make your map be the best it can be.

First, let’s start with some advice…
Crafting Plausible Maps

What does it take to craft a world that feels authentic and realistic? How much of your design will be rooted in fantasy and how much will be based on scientific principles? In this in-depth article, Brandon Kier takes you through the dos and don’ts of fantasy cartography.

Tolkien’s Map and The Messed Up Mountains of Middle-earth

I’ve always felt there’s something a little off about the classic map of Middle-earth. Author and geologist Alex Acks agrees. In this article for Tor.com, he goes into details on the strange geology of Tolkien’s classic.

Fantastic Cartography Tips From the Guy Who Mapped Game of Thrones

Jonathan Roberts has an extensive pedigree when it comes to fantasy cartography. In this quick article for Wired, he discusses the things he keeps in mind as he embarks on each and every commission.

10 Rules For Making Better Fantasy Maps

A map should help enhance your story, and Lauren Davis has ten tips you can use to improve your project.

Now, let’s check out some tutorials…
Fantastic Maps — Map Making Tutorials

Jonathan Roberts (from the Wired article earlier) has a ton of handy guides on his blog—Fantastic Maps. In his posts, he shares how you can quickly sketch out portions of your map using only a pen and paper. Be sure to check out his Tips & Tricks sections.

Ascensions’ Atlas style in Photoshop

This step by step guide is often duplicated and for a good reason. It goes into great detail explaining how you can make a custom and unique atlas-style map for your setting.

Learn to Draw a Stunning Map Using Photoshop

Over at the World Building School, Nathan Smith goes into detail about how he creates a stylized map using Photoshop.

A Magical Society: Guide to Mapping

The key here is plausible worlds. This free downloadable PDF goes into great detail on constructing a map that feels realistic. The art is up to you, but the planning is solid.

This is a time-consuming process, and to create something memorable it’ll take a lot of trial and error. Especially if you’re just starting out. But the end result is something that fits your vision perfectly. Plus, like generated maps, there’s always the option of hiring an illustrator to redraw your creation. Just make sure to get those core ideas down on paper.


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Further Resources

If you are looking for additional help. Here are a few more resources for you to explore.

Making Magnificent Mountains

A free Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop brush set I created which allows you to recreate hachure-style mountains to lend a turn-of-the-century feel to your maps.

r/Mapmaking

Reddit’s map making subforum has a ton of great advice and a lot of inspiration. While you’re at it make sure to check out their Mapmaking Wiki. It’s basically this post but with a ton more tools listed.

Cartographers Guild

This online community has been around for a long time and has a ton of great members who are happy to share process, tips, tricks, and tools with the community. It’s also a great place to look for illustrators that can turn your sketches into a work of art.

Old Maps Online

Inspiration can come from anywhere. This handy site allows you to zoom into specific areas on the map and find old maps related to that area. Never know what cool stuff you’ll stumble across.


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This is just a small list of tools I’ve tried and liked. There’s a variety of sites and programs out there for a variety of authors and more coming along each day. As with everything, map creation is about finding the tool that works for you, fits your vision, and keeps you writing. As I mentioned in the beginning, if you have a site or resource you like that’s not on this list, let me know! I’d love to continue expanding this post.

Now, go make some maps.

✨🗺✨


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A Weird Fiction Cover Design Intervention

On Twitter this April, I went on a rant about cover design, specifically targeting indie authors and small press houses within the Lovecraftian and weird fiction genres. Both are genres of which I am proud to be a part, but as of late I’ve found myself disappointed when it comes to the quality of the book cover designs. Fellow author S. Lee Benedict suggested I expand on this topic here, and it’s a good idea…

...and here we go.

This isn’t the first time I have written about cover design; you can read my previous post, ‘Building A Better Book Cover’ over here. Cover design is something of a passion for me. I’ve been a professional designer for 16 years working on everything from software, branding, advertising, book covers, and a variety of promotional materials. I believe good design is important, and I know it’s important to fans and readers.

So, here’s our situation. I feel like Lovecraftian and weird fiction literature needs a cover design intervention. Honestly, that statement could apply to much, much more than just those two categories; but these days I am closest to those genres, so they get the brunt of my focus. I’m not fond of publically shaming. So, don’t expect me to call out specific examples of bad design. However, with a little searching, you can easily see what I mean.

It’s not that indie authors or small publishers start out with a desire to make awful covers. Sit in on any self-publishing panel at a convention and every author will readily admit it’s worth spending the money on an illustration for your cover. And, many books with terrible covers start with a great illustration. They’re on point for tone and mood, and often a good step in the right direction, but they completely miss the mark when it comes to typography and design. Strange font choices abound, bad effects mar legibility, and bizarre distortions plague the shelves. At best it’s boring, at worst it’s completely illegible. (And it tends to skew towards the latter, unfortunately.) It’s like someone put all their effort into illustration and completely forgot that paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art. Those three concepts are the pillars of good design. Everything in a book cover plays off of one another; bad typography can forever mar a beautiful illustration.

“…paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art.”

If indie authors and small presses were more honest with themselves, they’d know when a cover is done vs. done right. It’s not hard to compare; solid examples are everywhere. And it wouldn’t take much to improve; basic typography operates under a set of rules, and a few typography classes at a local college would go a long way to learning the ins and outs. If that’s hard to swing, sit down with a Skillshare class. Jon Contino, the illustrator who did the lettering for my books, offers a Skillshare class on Illustration and Lettering: A Hands-on Approach to Label Design that is excellent. If you’re looking for books on the subject start with The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It’s commonly called “the Typographer’s Bible,” and it’s a good (if not dense) place to start. Also, look into Ellen Lupton’s fantastic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students; it’s a practical guide on the rules of typography and how to break them effectively and creatively,

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

As I mentioned in my post, ‘Building a Better Book Cover,’ Chip Kidd, one of the greatest book cover designers living today, has said, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” I love that quote. He’s not wrong; bad cover design does a disservice to the writing it represents. It detracts when it should enhance, it lies when it should entice.

But there is a silver lining! I know quite a few authors who have taken the time and put in the effort and have made strides in cover design. Word Horde is a great weird fiction press that does wonderful work, and Laird Barron’s novels often have fantastic covers. Recent strides have been made by larger print houses as well; Victor laValle’s Ballad of Black Tom (Tor) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft County (Harper) were recent standouts in the genre. So well designed covers in weird fiction are out there. Publishers, designers, and authors should study what those books do right and strive towards emulating their successes.

Weird fiction book covers

I believe weird fiction is one of the most exciting and imaginative genres to be writing in today. It pushes at the edges of speculative fiction as a whole and continues to broaden its reach. It’s only reasonable to desire that the covers of the great work being produced should live up to the potential within the pages. We all want these books to continue to attract new readers for decades to come, and a well-designed cover goes a long way to doing just that.

This is the most detailed map yet of our place in the universe

Friday Link Pack 09/05/2014

First Friday of September! That means it’s time to share a few interesting links I have found throughout the week. Some of these I mention on Twitter, if you’re not already following me there, please do! Have a link I should feature in the upcoming link pack? Let me know!

Old Broken Road:

The sample chapter of Old Broken Road is now available to read for free! Simply hit up: oldbrokenroad.com. Enjoy! Expect a release date announcement any day now. You heard it here first.

Writing:

Book Publishing, Not Fact-Checking
Here’s something that will probably not come as a surprise: most non-fiction books are not fact checked. Well, maybe it should come as a surprise, but are we really surprised by stuff like this anymore?

Let’s Talk About Margins
Many publishers ignore the layout of books but layout is important. In my opinion it is as important as a good editor and a good cover. In this article, Craig Mod explains why you need to pay attention to the margins. (Thanks to Gus for sharing this.)

Generative eBook Covers
A lot of early books didn’t have covers. Not in the way we think of them today. New York Public Library has embarked on creating generative eBook covers. Obviously, these won’t replace a custom cover, but the result are pretty cool.

The Future Library
What if you could contribute a book to a library that won’t be available for one hundred years? You’d never know what people thought. You’d be writing for writings sake. Well, it’s happening, and Margaret Atwood is the first contributor.

The Creative Process
Self-doubt is something every author struggles with, but pushing past it is what separates the successes from the failures.

Art:

500 Years Of Female Portraits In Western Art
Found this video showing the progression of the female portrait very fascinating. Really appreciate the work that went into this. It’s interesting to see history presented this way.

2014 Burning Man Photoset
Stunning imagery from this year’s Burning Man snapped by photographer John K. Goodman. (It’s Burning Man, so I’ll assume you know these probably aren’t totally safe-for-work.)

Art Is A Way
Do yourself a favor and check out these beautiful paper-cut sculptures from artist Elsa Mora. Really fun, detailed work.

Random:

This Is The Most Detailed Map Yet Of Our Place In The Universe
So the Milky Way is our galaxy. But did you know we’re apart of a supercluster of galaxies? Meet Laniakea, our local supercluster containing more than one-hundred thousand galaxies.

Seven-Foot Wide House For Sale In London
Looking to move to London? Need a small place to call your own? How about a narrow place? How about a REALLY narrow place?

Mystery Of How Rocks Move Across Death Valley Lake Bed Solved
Remember those strange rocks that move across the desert? Well, science has discovered how that crazy phenomenon happens!

Lovecraft Story of the Week:

The Hound
A pair of grave robbers choose the wrong grave. Fun fact: this is the first mention of Arab Abdul Alhazred and the Necronomicon.

Gif of the Week:
BFF

Building A Better Book Cover

Let’s Talk About Your Book Cover.
Along with being a writer I am also a designer. I’ve been designing for 15 years now, having done everything from posters, logos, email campaigns, web sites, before eventually settling into user experience design. I mention my pedigree such as it is, only because I want to talk about some concerns I have over design advice  given to indie authors who are diving into self-publishing.

There seems to be a great many folks out there who claim you can make a well designed book cover with a cheap stock photo and a bit of text. I have seen these articles pop up on blogs all over. Every single time I just get frustrated. Why? Well, frankly… they’re totally wrong.

A Short Design Lesson

A well designed cover is so much more. It’s clever. It’s engaging. It’s attractive. It’s enticing. Chip Kidd—arguably one of the best cover designers in the world today—is quoted as saying:

“A book cover is a distillation.
It is a haiku of the story.”

The primary essence of a haiku is the Japanese word きる or kiru, which means to cut or slice. In a good haiku everything is removed but the perfect words to formulate the perfect line. A good book cover should also strive for that same perfection. Just like a haiku, it should reduce thousands and thousands of your words into a few simple elements. These elements should work together to do one thing: engage the viewer.

Staying simple is key. One of my favorite sayings comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who said:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

What does that mean? Let’s take a look at one of my favorite covers from last year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

There is so much going yet it’s so simple and clever. Excess distraction has been stripped away and it still oozes intrigue. The choice of hand lettering. The tear and the peeling back of the paper to reveal the titular goldfinch. It’s compelling. It’s engaging. It’s clever. It leaves the viewer wanting to know more. It makes me want to read the book.

Often stock photography tends to be the most cliché take on a subject. Cleverness rarely comes from cliché. To get past the cliché I think you need to go beyond visual imagery, sure…a piece of stock photography might show up, and yes a typeface choice will be a part of the final design, but just slapping together a few things that are “close enough” won’t do your story justice. A good cover goes beyond all of that, it becomes that perfect line.

Creating A Better Cover

Okay, my lesson on book cover design theory is over. You want to make a simple engaging cover. So how do you go about doing that? I get that not everyone is a designer. So what can you do as a writer to really make your book cover stand out and look professional? Here’s a few suggestions.

If you are willing to spend some money:
  • Hire a designer
    Seriously. A designer will help your final work look it’s best. Make sure you have them read your book and approach you with a few concepts. If you have a few ideas throw them out there, but be willing to bend a little. It’s their job to distill your story down into that perfect haiku, that is what they are good at, let them be good at their job.
If you are going in alone:
  • Study well-designed covers
    There are numerous resources out there for you to browse award winning covers. One fantastic place to start is The Book Cover Archive, a site I have mentioned before. But there are other collections all over the web. Use them as a resource, see what works and learn to recognize what doesn’t.
  • Learn from the masters
    Chip Kidd had a great TED talk I suggest you go watch. There are also a ton of books out there as well with instructions on how to get started.
  • Sketch out ideas
    Sit down and start sketching out ideas. You don’t have to be a good artist. Just get a feel for what you want. Does it involve people? Does it need to even have a photograph? Is there something representational you could use instead?
  • Get messy
    Look back at The Goldfinch‘s cover. A lovely (and I believe in the public domain) painting by Carel Fabritius. Some paper. Some rough handwriting. It’s all laid out and photographed. It looks great. Don’t be afraid to try some weird crafty things to capture that cover you want for your book.

A Few Final Thoughts

So does the cover even matter? Some would say in our post-bookstore eBook-flooded-world a cover isn’t anything more than a thumbnail—if even that. Some would say the interior is what matters and cover design is a waste of time. Both stances are probably right on some level and sure, a well designed cover means nothing if your book isn’t up to snuff, and yes a cover is rarely seen in an eBook but I don’t think those are good arguments for bad cover design.

If you can put in a little effort into making your book look that much more professional thus making it more appealing to readers…why wouldn’t you? Quality sells. People look at covers before they buy a book (yes, even with eBooks.) There’s a reason why folks like Chip Kidd, David Pelham, and Barbara Dewilde can make careers designing some of the most iconic and recognizable covers on the market. It’s the same reason why people are drawn to smartly designed book covers, and why readers remember their favorites.

Imagery resonates. You have spent all this time writing a pretty amazing book. Spend a bit more time and give it a pretty amazing cover.