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Mapmaking and Toponymy

This week I have worked on a map for my new world, Melior. It isn’t a world map, but a smaller region (this helps to keep my worldbuilding a little bit more under control and to keep a point of focus).

In this post I’ll show you how I made it, and the steps and thoughts that influenced my decisions to achieve my final outcome! (Or you can scroll to the end for a TL;DR summary).

Things I’ll be covering:

  • Making the map from scratch
  • Adding the rivers
  • Where to put cities and settlements
  • How to add meaningful names to places
A before and after image showing the first step of the map that looks like clouds, and the comparison final image of a refined map.
From fluffy clouds to refined map!

Making the map

My weapon of choice is Adobe Photoshop, so the first thing I did was set up a document size. I knew that I wanted to achieve more of a vertical arrangement of islands which is why I set up a portrait document to work with.

With black and white colours selected as the foreground and background colours, I made a new layer and slapped in some good old Filter > Render > Clouds

comparing the original clouds layer to the dodged and burned one that now has more contrast
The original clouds filter, compared to how it looked after dodging & burning

I added a threshold adjustment layer above the clouds so that I could see a black and white version of it. I then used the dodge and burn tool on the cloud layer to adjust the island shapes to something visually appealing.

comparing the dodged and burned clouds to the black and white threshold layer
Left is the clouds layer, right is the same layer with a threshold adjustment on top

I cloud then use the select colour range tool to make the white areas into a layer mask to be used later (meaning that just the island mass was selected).

comparing the black and white island shape to the height map of the island
Re-using the initial cloud layer for a height map

I used my initial cloud layer (the un-burned one) and the new clipping mask to create an imaginary height map for the island. It was very random to start with so I had to carefully dodge and burn the areas to look a little more natural. In this image, the whitest areas are highest and would be mountains or very big hilly regions.

showing the contour lines of the map and comparing them to the coloured version
Before and after colouring the contour layers

I made some duplicates of this heightmap layer and used filter > stylize > trace contour on each layer at varying heights so that it would create slices from the darkest to lightest regions. At this stage I also added an outer glow to the islands for better contrast and to show the lakes clearer.

Adding the rivers

I used to really struggle with adding rivers to my maps, but knowing the height or elevation really helps. When adding the rivers I make sure to start them at the highest elevation, choose the easiest path to the lower elevation, and the shortest route to the sea.

  1. Source of the river (high elevations)
  2. Tributaries join from other high places (join not split)
  3. The lake can have multiple rivers going IN but only one river going OUT of the lake
  4. The river moves to the lower elevations and shortest path to the sea
  5. This is the mouth of the river, the other locations were blocked by higher elevations
comparing the contour height map to the aesthetics of the new map with rivers

I added many visual adjustments here, including hopping into Wonderdraft to see if I could play around with some effects (I used their river tool and background texture). I made sure to use the height layers in a low opacity so that the rivers made more sense (they looked very strange when flat).

Planning settlement locations and roads

initial plans for cities and villages on the map, with roads in between them

Much like the river placement, settlements had a few things to bear in mind too and the primary one was: water. People are going to settle near water for drinking, washing, power, transport and more. I started by placing cities (large red dots) on a new layer in strategic locations around the coast, but not too close to each other. From there I was able to try and draw a road using the easiest path (not over the top of hills) between them. Every time a road encountered a river, I put a town (small orange dot). I could then start to make roads between the towns, or place them in rest stops if there were large stretches of road with no settlements in between.

I didn’t want to clutter my map, and I noticed that other regional maps often only show cities and towns of higher significance, so I hid some of these from view.

Adding meaningful placenames

Normally, I’m quite happy to think up fantasy placenames off the top of my head and slap them on the map, but this time I wanted to look into toponymy (the study of place names). How does this help? Well, you wouldn’t expect to find a town named Hayport on top of a hill in the middle of the island would you? Why? It’s down to the name. Port means that the settlement has a harbour or port, which implies it’s a shipping town and needs to be near water.

Have a look at the examples I found on Wikipedia here, it lists a lot of prefixes and suffixes used in the UK and Ireland and what they all mean.

I studied this list all day and started mashing words together and wrote down the ones I liked the sound of. From there I could remind myself of their meanings and put them in the right places.

Aberwick, for example, uses the prefix aber (mouth (of a river), confluence, a meeting of waters) and suffix wick (bay). So I knew that I needed to place it in a bay that had a river mouth.

This is tremendously helpful for my worldbuilding, too because it tells me so much more about the settlements. Take the capital city name I’ve used: Bradstowe. Sounds legit, but what does it mean? Brad is old English for broad (so I know this place is wide and sprawling), and stowe is old English for (holy) place (of assembly) – so I can say that this capital city has a great religious influence (either currently or historically).

The Wiki link shown above isn’t a one case fits all, this technique works well in my world because it’s an Earth-like world, with these isles being inspired by 18th century England. If you wanted to name places in another culturally different region, you could adapt these techniques and swap out the words (or even use your own conlang) to suit your needs.

In summary (TL;DR)

  • make a map using software of choice
  • height maps are helpful for river and settlement placement
  • rivers start high, join together (not split), take the easiest shortest past to the lowest elevation leading to the sea
  • settlements favour water and strategic locations, with rest stops in between long distances
  • roads take the easiest, shortest routes too
  • settlement names should give an indication of their location e.g. Stanmouth would be found at the mouth of a river

I hope you enjoyed learning about my process of mapmaking! It isn’t a perfect method by any means but I really enjoy it and I hope you do, too! If this has got you itching to make a new world, check out my blog post on Planning a New World.

Want to see the map in action? Check it out here in my world!

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