No Map Is An Island
Sorry about the title; I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t resist!
Anyway, we begin this post with a moment of silence for the unexpected perils of a writer’s life; in this case that moment when you’ve been researching maps in your lunch-break, then something goes wrong and you call in the IT crowd. They come up and start minimising windows and there’s a brief moment of confusion because emblazoned across the screen all of a sudden is the word ‘MAPPORN’.
To be clear, as I hastened to explain to a colleague now laughing so hard he’s crying, Map Porn is a twitter account filled with – what else? – historical and fictional maps. There’s also a reddit site, but I don’t understand how to navigate it so you’ll have to check that out on your own if you’re interested.
This is like that time we were all explaining to our IT guys that ‘Bookshelf Porn’ was genuinely just a website full of pictures of especially nice looking bookcases, isn’t it? (Does anyone else remember Bookshelf Porn?)
Anyway, the result of this is that my Star Trek-critiquing buddy IT guy now thinks I may be too nerdy for him.
Writers: We wrote the book on weird. Literally.
First Things First…
So in my last post, wherein I flailed around drawing a map for a king without a kingdom, I mentioned that sometimes the only way to draw the maps that you want is to start drawing and keep doing so until you reach something that looks right.
And in the spirit of that idea, I tried to think of something I am not very good at in drawing and combine that with something I didn’t have much of a pre-conceived image to work from. Sort of a ‘two things that already taste bad but put together become tolerable’ exercise, I guess.
To that end I decided to tackle drawing a cluster of islands, an archipelago for the technical of you reading this, and combine that with drawing a land for my dwarves to live in.
Now dwarves have a little bit more in folklore for me to work from than the Oak King did, which is always nice! Though not originally Celtic, they did come along with the Vikings when they settled in the North, so I’m including them anyway.
Certainly we know the Anglo-Saxons took the dwarves into their folkloric hearts, because there is a record of the charm Wið Dweorh (Against a Dwarf) in the Lacnunga (‘Remedies’); a collection of miscellaneous Anglo-Saxon medical texts and prayers, written mainly in Old English and Latin. The charm, which involved writing the names of the biblically mythical Seven Sleepers of Ephesus onto seven wafers, then singing an alliterative verse three times, appears to cure sleep disturbances, although the translation’s a little iffy and might instead be tackling fevers or warts. Whatever it was, you know a creature-concept has made it into folkloric canon when they are texts on how to get rid of it!
Also is anyone else kind of convinced that this is the Anglo-Saxon version of telling your child to count sheep if they can’t sleep? This definitely seems suspiciously familiar…
What we know of dwarves for map-drawing purposes is, as I say, more helpful than with the Oak King, but that’s saying little. It was said that there were originally four dwarves, named Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri (Old Norse ‘North, South, East, and West’) who held up the sky, although they also must have had hella mating skills, because the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda (our two main sources for Viking legends) contain mention of over a hundred dwarves by name.
Their world was named Nidavellir (Old Norse for ‘Dark Fields’), no one is allowed to ask me how to pronounce it, and one of their other functions in myth was to guard doorways in the mountains which allow access between the worlds. It also seems to be the same place as Myrkheim (‘Dark Home’ or ‘World of Darkness’), and I am happy to say that we have directions!
Yes, you too may visit the dwarves, although why on earth you’d want to is up for debate. I mean, the things I would do to get my hands on the Mead of Poetry are many and terrible, but the risk of cursed treasure, being turned to stone or simple death strikes me as a little off-putting…
Anyway, the directions go as follows:
Stóð fyr norðan, / á Niðavöllom / salr úr gulli / Sindra ættar
Before you reach the north, A dark dwelling stands, In halls of gold, Sindri’s bloodline lives.
Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva)
So compasses out, all you adventurers! Send us postcards, if you can because as we all know the directions of seeresses are easy to follow and never misleading at all.
It seems to be a charming place to live; not only characterised by its darkness (and therefore possibly underground) its other chief feature is the never ending mist. Another name for the place (welcome to folklore, where every time we mention something it gets a new name, despite clearly being the same place) is Niflheim or ‘Abode of Mist or ‘Mist World’.
The story goes that Niflheim was the second world created, and placed right next door to Muspelheim, the world of fire. Being naturally cold and damp in Niflheim, the end result was massive clouds of fog and steam. I did read one translation that called it a ‘creating steam’ so maybe it was actually a lovely place once you got there?
Stage One – Ideas!
Well, clearly we can’t just have a world populated four dwarves, that would be sad!
Alternatively, if I grouped dwarves into clans, then that sorts out the population issues pretty well. Four major dwarvish clans then, each lead by mighty warriors, named for their respective forebears. I like it.
And since the original dwarf myths are Viking, instead of drawing one big world for these clans to live in, I thought I’d go for a collection on islands. Island chains have very diverse cultures, as each island is encouraged by separation to develop their own very distinct societies, and you just don’t see enough sea-going dwarves in literature, which is an image I really like.
So the obvious first thing we need are four main islands, positioned in the North, South, East and West. Since the world of the dwarves had so many different names throughout the recorded sagas, I could see if I can name each of them after a different legend’s moniker.
It might not be an original interpretation, but it’s a start and this map could pretty much be summarised as ‘Hey, It’s a start!’
And we’ll need some smaller islands too, partly because archipelagos have those (I checked), and partly because it gives each clan something to fight for and lose to each other, and win back through feats of strength or cunning, which is good for world-building.
Stage Two – Start Sketching (Badly)
OK, so draw a circle and quickly draw in four rough shapes, one at each point of the compass.
Top Tip Time: If you are anything like me and feel the inescapable urge to have everything be perfect on the first try, I recommend closing your eyes for this bit. No really, close your eyes when you draw. You’re only drawing rough shapes anyway, and it will help you combat the urge to over-think everything.
I always find it a lot easier to develop and ‘fix’ something that already exists than try to create the sublimely perfect on the first attempt.
Still, looking at it now: Urgh!
Whoever saw a cluster of islands so regimented? And what on earth do I do with all that blank space in the middle?
I suppose I could do something like add another island in the middle, but then I’d have to name it and find a use for it…
No, I don’t like that idea, let’s have another go…
Stage Three – If At First You Do Not Succeed…
Brief Philosophical Moment: In try not to apologise for my weird little drawings anymore – bad first drafts lead to good final drafts. Blank paper leads to nothing.
Keep trying until you find something that works for your eyes, and then you’ll have the confidence to share it with others!
OK, Round 2; here we come!
So this time, I’ve tried to sort-of squish the islands together a bit, crowding out some of that blank space with islands I actually want to be there.
And I’ve tried to give the islands a bit of a curve, closing the loop a bit to give a sens eof a complete little world.
Down at the bottom I’ve tried to give a sense that these islands are at least a little bit the product of contimental drift, like how Africa was once joined up with South America.
I’ve tried to combat the sense that everything’s too artifical with a perfect circle formation by gently off-setting the islands so that none of them are truly North, South, etc.
This isn’t a bad try, but I’m pretty sure I can refine it.
OK, Round 3 is up and running. Now we’re even more squished up, and un-regimented. What do you think?
I feel like this map really shows my patented ‘Close your eyes and scribble, it probably won’t be as hideous as you think’ technique.
There’s a weird sense of freedom when you try this, and especially when you don’t really know what you want, it’s a helpful starting point.
At the very worst, you’ll open your eyes and think ‘OK, not that then.’ Drawing by process of elimination is as good a technique as any, I say!
I’ve added in a few little islands here and there, but all in all I’m pretty happy with this, let’s make this sketch look like an actual map, shall we?
Stage Four – Details!
This exercise has mostly been about finding a way to draw a cluster of islands I liked the look of, so when I say ‘Details’ what I mean is ‘An outline that doesn’t look like abstract art’.
And here we go! If you’re wondering how we got from Attempt 3 to Attempt 4, then the answer is fairly simple.
I put Attempt 3 under a blank sheet of paper, so that only the barest outline would show through. No tracing paper or light-behind-the-page technique, as that only encourages me in my over-thinking and tendancy to try to copy as much as possible from the previous draft.
Then I took a deep breath, made sure not to hold the pencil too tight and tried for the absolute most wiggly outline I possible could!
I’m actually really proud of the end result, and I have a bad tendancy towards drawing these smooth, flowing lines for coastlines, and they never look even remotely real. Just check out my last map for a good example!
You can see (hopefully) that in places I strayed a long way out of in from my guidelines, but that only helps the disorganisation of natural forms, I think.
All in all, I’m really pleased with this! Not bad for not knowing what I was doing!
So, the next step for this map is enlarge it, make several copies of it and then start trying out different internal designs. Where to put the mountains and rivers and things.
But that’s for another day, and another map!
If you liked this post, why not check out the mapping mini-series masterpost for more ruminations about drawing and a discussion about a few uses for maps in a fantasy story?