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Some Software to Map With

Mapping it softly

In this post I talked about mapping your fiction world, specifically fantasy worlds, and I got all nerdy on yo’ ass with tectonic plates and the like.

Today I am going to throw some software in your general direction, programs you can use to doodle your maps in various levels of detail — keeping in mind simple is probably best for you and I, the authors, and we should let the pros make the real maps later.

The stalwart companion

Time-sink warning: Super low
Pretty factor: Ugly as shit

This map took minutes to make (and looks it)
This map took minutes to make (and looks it)

Microsoft Paint on Windows (already installed on virtually all Windows computers) and Paintbrush for OS X. So simple it’s almost like drawing in the sand with a stick.

But you know what?

Brandon Sanderson used MS Paint to sketch his first map for Elantris. The map to the left is not that map.

Different color lines, some dots here and there, slap some text over the dots and squiggles, and that’s that.

MS Paint comes with Windows, and can be found under the ‘Accessories’ folder on the start menu.

Paintbrush, a nifty Paint type program for OS X, is free to download.

Getting a little Gimpy

Time-sink warning: Low
Pretty factor: Ugly as shit – Almost not ugly as shit

Gimp is a free program for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux (in yo’ repo, foo, no linky for you).

If Photoshop is that $100 steak with the fancy name, then Gimp is the tasty $10 steak from the Greek place down the road.

Both fill you, both look quite similar, but one breaks the bank.

While Gimp will never replace Photoshop for the design crowd, it will do everything you ever need when it comes to mapping.

Remember: keep it simple. Lines and dots, squiggles and zigzags.

Why use Gimp over a simpler program then?

  • Layers: You can make a layer for terrain, a layer for text, a layer for nude froliking elves, whatever.
  • Exports: Save the file as the default Gimp format, XCF, or export it to bmp, jpg, png, etc.
  • Effects: While you are keeping it simple (right?), feel free to throw in a drop-shadow under your city names or other very simple effects to give it that bit of pizzaz. Youare going to have to look at this mess while you write, so dress it up a bit.
  • Free: Works on all operating systems you likely use, and so you can edit your map on the Mac, and later on your Windows laptop with the same program.

Painting in hexes

Time-sink warning: Low-Medium
Pretty factor: Nice and nerdy

Are your geeky, miniatures collecting fingers twitching as you stare at this image?

Here’s one right in between the ‘draw it all yourself’ crowd above, and the ‘pro mapping, need a book to figure it all out’ crowd below: Hex mapping.

Hex maps, used in war-gaming and other miniature nerd-fests in our child(adult)hoods, can be both simple to create and elegantly informational at the same time.

Water looks like water, mountains have a little more spunk to them than zigzags in MS Paint, and yet it doesn’t take long to make.

One of my favorites can be used for free (with some limitations) called Hexographer.

While these maps are usually fairly zoomed in deals, with each hex being a few miles or even mere meters, nothing is stopping you from making a zoomed out overview of your entire world, each hex being a hundred or two hundred miles.

For the cartographers out there (NEEEERRD!)

Time-sink warning: Electric nerd storms with a chance of never writing your book
Pretty factor: Possibly professional looking

Some people don’t suck at this stuff like I do.

Maybe you want to get into better mapping programs because you can — you’ve DMed a hundred games of D&D since the blue box, and live on vibrant worlds and Mountain Dew.

AutoREALM is like a CAD system for map-nerds. Free, but by default, it’s pretty damn ugly (though some intrepid folks are working on updating the whole thing as we speak), but it can draw fractal lines, city icons, compass roses, etc. With a little work, however, you can make a decent old-style map with continents, mountains, rivers and ruins.

And the holy grail of mapping software: Campaign Cartographer. This is the real deal. Pro software with a pro learning curve, tons of map icons and filters, and a hefty price tag to top it off. If you want to be the sole creator of your map and never have another taint your magnificent creation with their unwashed hands, here’s what you need. If you go this route, good luck to you, for many have traveled those dark and dust roads, never to be seen again.

Remember, don’t get yourself so wrapped up in your mapping you lose sight of what you are mapping for — to write a story that takes place in that world — but I hope these programs are useful to you!

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Published inMappingWritingWriting My Fantasy Novel