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Ava Fairhall's Fantasy Maps

posted Dec 1, 2018, 3:00 PM by Grace Bridges
Ava Fairhall, a writer, artist, and cartographer, will be presenting a session on Mapping Fantasy Worlds at GeyserCon in Rotorua.

GEYSERCON: Hi Ava! Thanks for stopping by and thanks so much for contributing to our national convention. We can’t wait to meet you! 
Thank you for the opportunity to participate! It’ll be my first convention, so I’m rather excited.

GEYSERCON: We’re sure everyone asks you this, but how important is realism? After all, it’s fantasy, right? So if the world is conjured from our imagination, do rivers really have to flow down to the sea, and why can’t we plonk a desert in the middle of a forest if we want to?
The geography of your world is completely up to you, and you can put your features anywhere, with one caveat – there has to be a reason why. When we look at a map, we have a rough expectation of what to find based on our current understanding of the world around us. That rivers will run from high points (mountain ranges) to low points (the sea), because that’s the way gravity works. So if you’re creating a world where this doesn’t happen, the reader will want to know why. 
Why? Because that’s where stories begin. If there’s a desert in a forest, was it caused by a blast of magic? A toxic chemical spill? Or tiny invading sand aliens who are attempting to conquer the planet? SFF stories contain elements of things we know, and things we don’t. By including realistic elements you give the reader a comfortable place to start getting to know your world. Too much strangeness gets confusing and may give the reader an impression of inconsistency or sloppiness Our Earth also contains plenty of strange geographical features

GEYSERCON: Which comes first? The map or the world? Do you recommend writing the story and developing the fantasy world’s geography through the narrative, or is it better to start with the map and develop the story from there?  
I’ve always had the story come to me before the map because the characters introduce themselves before I learn where they live, but that’s not true for everyone. It doesn’t matter which comes first. Story ideas can come from anywhere, and a map is one of them. There are pros and cons to both sides.
If the story comes first, you may never feel the need to generate a map at all, or if you do, the map may only grow as far as far as the story needs it. This allows you to focus on the story and not get side-tracked down the rabbit hole of world-building and researching how long it might take for a horse to travel 300 miles so you can make sure your ancient ruin is in the right place. You get to explore the undiscovered parts in other stories without being too constrained by what’s been written. On the other hand, drawing the map around the world can make a story feel incomplete and disconnected from the world around it. If you later fill in one of your voids with a significant feature, it may leave readers wondering how people in other parts of the map never heard of it. It can also mean some geographical elements won’t make sense.

If the map comes first, you know why Clan Furgle hasn’t heard of the City of Coloured Glass, and can put a treacherous mountain range in between to isolate them, and then incorporate the myth of a terrible fate befalling any who cross the mountains. The landscape is all decided in advance and shapes your story instead of the other way around. The trouble with maps coming first is that it can lead to overbuilding the world, and before you know it, you have 17 Star Systems, 89 planets and 304 moons, when your story takes place around on a research ship that jumps between two planets and a moon. The world might feel complete, but you’re only ever going to use 5% of it, and the time taken to build your world could have been spent writing.

GEYSERCON: A lot of classic SFF stories have included maps, many with very different styles and designs. Do you have a favourite and why?
(For reference, here is a good blogpost, which lists some examples. https://www.hodderscape.co.uk/quiz-identify-fantasy-novel-maps/)
Any time a book has a map, I’m halfway sold already. Treasure maps were probably the first thing that caught my imagination as a child – something precious and hidden to find. Who hid it and why? When I first read Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Terry Brooks, I tracked the progress of the characters through the landscape. I’ve stared for hours at maps of Greyhawk, Ankh-Morepork and Redania, Temeria and the Skellige Isles (usually looking for quests) wondering how places got their names, why this place is a ruin, or been thrilled to finally locate the place mentioned in the story.
Do I have a favourite style? No. Each map is a unique extension of a story, a world to explore and tells a story of their own, and that’s what I love about them. Each style reflects the world they portray, and thus there’s something to love in each one.
I will say, however, that maps with hidden places, ruins, unexplored territory, dangerous or forbidden zones, and unusual features in an ordinary landscape are things I love on a map. 

GEYSERCON: Can you give us a little hint about what you might talk about at GeyserCon? (Don’t tell them too much!)
It’ll be a broad overview of how I make maps, and the things I’ve learned along the way. The things that make the process faster, and pitfalls to be aware of. What you’ll want to give to an artist who you’ve commissioned (or bribed) to make you a map, and what to think about if you’re drawing your own. As well as preparing maps for print, and considerations to think about before you draw your map.

GEYSERCON: And finally, as both a creator and consumer of SFF, what do you hope to get out of the convention for yourself? 
The biggest thrill for me will be having the opportunity to meet other writers and learn about the worlds they’re creating. I plan to go as many workshops as I can, although I’m having a lot of conflicts choosing which ones.

Ava Fairhall
Ava Fairhall with her map of Dragon Realm designed for Eileen Mueller’s Riders of Fire fantasy series.