Start with a credible geography, and a credible ecosystem overlay. Not just for map-based adventure fantasy and Lit-RPG, where often the map comes before the manuscript, but for finished manuscripts, too.
The manuscript itself won’t give you that explicitly. You have to know the story well and reverse engineer it. But if you’re lucky, the map can be part of a feedback loop, informing changes in the text to ground the story in the world more thoroughly.
Observations about map-making for fiction based on a single recent example. Not intended to be a statement of any kind of general rule, by inference or otherwise.
In this case, the manuscript was Olivia Lark’s upcoming time-travel lesbian romance, The Sum of Love, which I had been editing for some weeks when these maps came about. Olivia has given me permission to write this ahead of the publication date (Feb. 14), although I won’t really give anything away about the story.
As a result of editing, I was extremely familiar with the story, and one of my jobs as editor is continuity — why is the redhead character in chapter 3 suddenly a brunette in chapter 13? How do the park benches in chapter 1 turn into picnic tables in chapter 8? That kind of thing. And naturally I began to think that a map would be an important aid.
In full disclosure, Olivia had asked me for a map back when she was in the middle of her first draft, and aside from procrastination, the reason I didn’t do it then wasn’t that I don’t care about my writing partner, as she would contend, but that I didn’t really have a grasp of the story yet. Now I did.
The epiphany that got me going, though, was realizing which end of the project to start at. Because my first instinct was to sit down at page 1, go page by page, and whenever a locale was described (named or unnamed) plot it onto a blank piece of paper. Physically draw a dot. It was impossible. After Amanda’s apartment – *dot* – next was Hollis’s apartment. Where should the friggin’ dot go, in relation to dot #1? East, west? What’s the scale? It was meaningless.
No, I had to draw a map first, a blank outline of the landscape. I had to have a reason for putting each dot down, in that every locale had a relationship in the story to its surroundings. This dot had to be within walking distance of the river. This dot had to be far enough away that a bike ride from this other dot would take more than five minutes. Amanda’s had to be far enough away from Hollis’s to warrant Hollis hanging her toothbrush there while they were dating.
So I closed the manuscript, and just drew the bare outline of what I knew: a river, a mill, and a couple of named streets. A village center with a concentration of shops. A city park overlooking the river. A mall.
Then a few things that are never mentioned in the book, but that have to be there, because of the way things are: a millpond, a railroad, a railroad station, a bridge over the river. An underlying notion that the river flowed from SE to NW, and that therefore SE was also higher ground.
Pretty soon I had an entire ecosystem with a lot of life’s moving parts (admittedly for only a minuscule smidgen of all possible lives or universes, even of all possible realistic ones), and I then had a great time plopping in all the *dots*. In this ecosystem where would Hollis live? Near the city center? Where would the church be? Etc.
On top of all this, there were really two maps, because of the time travel plot: one, of the town we named Millford in 2020, and another of the same town in 1895. This is where the real fun began, because some locales obviously had to remain approximately the same between the centuries – the river, the mill, etc. – some locales had only to be in one era or the other, and it didn’t much matter where – and for still other locales appearing in one or the other era, it very much did matter what features were at the corresponding locale in the alternate time.
Confused? It’s all clear in the book. But the mapmaking was hella fun.