Nov 202018

Episode 21: Learn How to Create Maps

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to leverage places on Earth when map making
  • When you should and shouldn’t draw a continent maps
  • Why maps of wooden ships aren’t needed
  • Why maps of space ships are a good idea
  • How to create a settlement map
  • Tricks on getting started with map making

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Episode 21 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number twenty-one. Today’s topic is about how create maps like continents, settlements, and dungeon maps, and learn whether you should create any of this and why. This material and more is discussed in chapter 12 of Creating Places, volume 2 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at

Advantages to Map Making

There are some advantages to creating a map. One of those is that it makes it easier for our audience to visualize locations. That can, in turn, cut down on how much explanation we have to do about which direction various things lie in. That does not free us from acquiring the skill to quickly and succinctly describe the various locations of things, but, even so, it can take some of the pressure off of us. Personally, I find myself describing things in too much detail when there is not a map. But when there is, I feel comfortable just staying, “This kingdom is south of the other one, and next to this feature, like a forest or an ocean.” I know that the reader can flip to the map and just see exactly what I’m talking about. And there are various other details that I don’t need to go into if they are not relevant to the passage that I’m currently describing.

There is a tendency to try to describe a complete setting. The problem with this is that we’re just doing a paragraph of explanation. Depending on who you ask, that kind of exposition is not considered good style, but you may disagree and just go ahead and do it anyway. But it is still worth mentioning that cutting down on some of that explanation can be a good idea. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

For world builders, another really good reason to create a map is that when we have these blank areas on the page, it can help us think of things to include there. As authors, we’re all familiar with the idea of a blank page keeping us from thinking of anything, but that’s a little different when we’re talking about writing. When it comes to creating a map, it’s a little bit easier to think of things to place somewhere.

One of the general tips that I’m going to give you today is to base your maps on something that already exists on Earth, but also make alterations to that. For example, I, personally, have trouble thinking of interesting city layouts. I just draw a blank on this, if you’ll excuse the pun. So, one of the ways of getting around that is to use a program like Google Maps where you can just pull this up, focus on any given city, town or whatever, look at it and think, “Do I like the layout that I see here? Is there something that I want to borrow?”

Many people are not going to recognize it if you take that existing place and you create a map that looks very similar because most of us don’t look down on the place where we live, or even other places nearby, or ones that we’re very familiar with, from that vantage point and really pay attention to the layout and the way it looks from above. We typically know what it looks like more from the skyline, or just what it’s like to live there, not from above. But if you’re going to choose a place that’s extremely well known, like Manhattan, then yes, you probably want to switch it around a little more.

And this is very easy to do. You can just change the direction of things. So, let’s say that you have an island that is mostly north to south. You can just turn that to face a different direction. You can do the same thing with countries. If you model one on France, people are going to recognize it if it’s exactly the same. But if you turn it sideways, they may not. And, of course, the other thing that we can do, and probably should do, when we do this is to make more changes to it while we’re doing so. We can just chop off a whole section of it, add on another section, or maybe there’s something that we’d like from another region of the world and we want to add that to this continent or this region that we’ve created. It’s an easy way to alter that without having to generate something from scratch.

The same idea applies to any settlement map that we come up with. All we have to do is alter a few parts of it and no one’s going to recognize it. Many of us don’t have drawing skills, and we think of that as a negative when it comes to creating maps, but this is actually a way that this is a positive. Because if you could duplicate it exactly, well then, that’s going to be recognizable. If you can’t duplicate it anyway because you don’t have the skills like me, then that’s good because it’s going to look different and that’s what you want. So, some of us might think of taking out tracing paper to trace it exactly. I would say don’t do that. Just do it free-hand and see how close you come or what you feel like altering.

The thing about the shapes of countries and settlements is that they’re very specific. If it’s recognizable at all, there is something distinctive about it. So, all we have to do is change that. And we’re talking about even a minor amount of change can make it unrecognizable.

What I started to touch on earlier is that one of the advantages to making maps is that it can help us think of things to put there. If, for example, you draw a north to south running line and decide that one side is ocean and the other side is the continent, and then you put a city right in the middle of that continent/coast edge, now you’re going to be wondering, “Well, what else is near this? Do I have a mountain range? Do I have a forest? Is there a river right there? So, there’s a tendency to want to fill up the map.  The problem that we sometimes have is what do we put there? So, it becomes an issue of making decisions.

One easy way to get around that is to do what I was just talking about, which is basing it on something from Earth. But the other way is to understand some basics about how land regions form and things like prevailing winds and rain shadows, which we’ve talked about in a previous episode, but I’m going to briefly touch on that again here.

One of the points I want to make about this subject is that it actually makes it much easier to decide where to place vegetation once you understand it. So, rather than it being a burden to you and something like you feel like, “Now I have to get things right when I’m creating a map,” the reality is that once you understand this, this is actually going to make a lot of your decisions for you. Now, you’re still going to have artistic license, or you can kind of overrule things or play with the details to get what you want, but it solves that problem of the blank page where you’re looking at it and you go, “I have no idea what to put where and how any of this works.”

Well, once you understand how it works, it becomes really easy to think of where to place things. Since this is a podcast and I can’t show you an image, which would be worth a thousand words, I’m going to come up with a very simple explanation for you. For example, let’s say that we have a coastline that is running north to south. On the left of that is the ocean and on the right is going to be our continent. One of the things that’s likely to happen is that we could have a mountain range that is also running north to south. Or, in other words, it’s parallel to the coast. A good example of this, if you have a computer with you, is to look at a map of the west coast of the United States.

So, let’s say we’ve got our coastline and then, maybe two inches to the right of that, we’ve got this north/south mountain range. Let’s go ahead and decide that this mountain range is 10,000 feet tall. That’s the average height of the mountains. If you’re wondering why that matters, it will become more apparent in a moment. But what’s basically going to happen is that the winds, in our example, are going to be coming from the left side of this map and crossing over that mountain range. The higher that mountain range is, the higher the atmosphere is going to be pushed up and the more rain is going to fall. As you’ll see, this is going to cause some vegetation issues.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that our continent is located roughly where the United States is. That means that the prevailing winds are coming from the west, or from the left side of this image that we have in our head. In other words, all of the storms are going to be coming from the left, and they’re going to be passing over the right. This also means they’re going to pass over that mountain range. What is most likely going to happen is that we are going to have a bunch of lush vegetation, like a forest, in between this coastline and the mountain range. This is being caused by the prevailing wind and the location of this continent on our hemisphere on our planet. Basically, this is a certain number of degrees north of the equator. As a result, that’s why the winds are coming from the left or the west.

Now, once those winds pass over the top of these 10,000-foot-tall mountains that are running north to south, most of the rain has fallen out of those clouds, and, as a result, there is no rain, or very little rain, to fall on the right side of those mountains. The result is going to be a desert. This phenomenon is called a rain shadow. Now, further to the right of this desert, as the clouds continue to move, they’re going to pick up some moisture in the air because that’s just the way it works. There’s always going to be some. It’s just that most of the moisture is picked up over the ocean.

So, what’s going to happen is as these prevailing winds move further and further away to the right of this mountain range, they’re going to pick up a little bit more moisture, and more of that is going to fall. So, what’s going to happen is that desert is going to give way to a grassland on the right. At first, it’s going to be short grass and then it’s going to be taller grass. That’s going to give away to a savannah a little further to the right. A savannah is mostly grass, but more and more trees coming in. And then, even further to the right, eventually we’re going to end up with more forest because enough rain is falling that far away that this rain shadow effect has decreased.

This is a pretty simple and believable example. And, to some extent, it is based on the United States. If you look at a map of the U.S., you do see this. You see lush vegetation on the west coast, then you see the mountains to the right. Further to the right, you see some deserts, like Death Valley. Further to the right, you get the Great Plains. And then even further, you finally start getting more forest. However, this kind of process, it plays out across the Earth, and it would happen on any Earth-like planet that you have.

Let’s briefly talk about another scenario. We were already talking about this north to south running mountains. Well, what if they weren’t north to south but they were east to west? Well, basically, that’s not going to have any impact because the winds are blowing to the right and the mountains are also laid out in that direction. Therefore, the mountains are not going to be blocking anything. You could have plenty of rainfall north and south of this mountain range that is east to west.

This is something to consider. One way that you might use this when creating a map is that if you really want, let’s say, a really thick forest that stretches for 1,000 miles on this side of the continent, and you also want mountains, then don’t put the mountains facing north to south. You’re going to have to put them east to west. So, this is something you probably want to know before you draw those mountains on your map.

There are a lot more details like this that are included in the Creating Places book. So, if you really want to get into this, I recommend picking up a copy. Most of it really is not that hard. You just have to read about it. One of the goals I had in writing that book is that I collected a lot of that knowledge in one place for you when I did the research on the various scenarios that come up. Now, one thing about this is that we still have artistic license and we can still decide that things are slightly different for one reason or another, and we can also decide that there’s magic at play, or other phenomenon that don’t happen here on Earth. But, generally, we probably want to try to be realistic if we are creating a place that is roughly Earth-like.

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How to Create Continent Maps

When it comes to continent maps, one of the things that I find happens is that, as I’m drawing out these maps, I start to think of the different kingdoms that are going to be there, and reasons for conflict among them. This is a really good reason to create one, even if you don’t include it in your book. For example, I could have a forest that is capable of producing the right kind of wood needed to build ships. Perhaps this forest is inside one kingdom and, therefore, another one that is adjacent is unable to get into it without cooperation. They’re either going to have to work something out or they’re going to have to go to war. Now, you might not think that wood for ships is a good enough reason, but there could be a lot of other things. And, even when it comes to ships, that can really control who can be a seafaring power. And, as we probably know from the way the Earth is right now, one of the reasons Britain was able to get so far around the world and dominate so much, and why culture from Britain is all over the place, is that they had one of the greatest, if not the greatest, navy at the time.

But it doesn’t have to be that. It could be any kind of mineral, something like gold, or any other precious metal that is inside one kingdom but is not in the other. Or we could have decided that it is a situation where part of that mountain or forest is in two different kingdoms, and therefore it has always been in contention.

Another scenario that came up for me was that I once created a continent, that you can see on my site called “Llorus.” There is a sea that’s called, I think, “The Sea of Fire.” Basically, the opening to the sea is on the left side of the continent. So, if you picture this, you’ve got a coast that’s running north to south, and then there’s an opening into this sea, which is kind of like the Mediterranean if you want to use an Earth example.

One thing I decided to do, and which is fairly obvious, is that one kingdom was in control of the land to the north of that opening into the sea, and a different kingdom was in charge of the land that is to the south of that opening. Naturally, both of them want to control access to that sea. Therefore, both of them are seafaring powers and their ships are frequently spotted, both in the ocean and in that channel that leads to the sea. And, of course, in the sea itself.

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

Figure 2: The Sea of Fire

So, this set them up as good enemies for each other. Now, as it turns out, inside that sea, there are multiple other kingdoms that have an access point to that water. They might also like to be able to sail on that sea. And, more importantly, they might like to be able to sail out of that sea and into the ocean, but doing so requires them to either get past the ships of both of those other countries, or to be an ally of one or the other so that they can get through safely.

One of the things that this allowed me to do was begin establishing friends and enemies. Now, as it turns out, I had done a lot of research into different kinds of government forms, and that’s also included in the Creating Places book. But, you know, ideologically, there are different ways of looking at the world, and different governments form as a result of that.

Sometimes, countries are opposed to each other for ideological reasons. I sometimes begin setting up the enemies partly because of that and partly because of where they were on the map. Once you have a certain amount of knowledge about various things, you can begin leveraging that knowledge when you are doing world building. That is, of course, the whole reason why I wrote The Art of World Building book series. In fact, if you really want some good examples of this, I believe the first chapter of Creating Places is called “Case Studies” or something to that affect. I basically showed you how you can use this knowledge in the act of creating a setting.

Now, as far as whether you should draw one or not, one of the reasons not to is that if your characters are not going to be traveling through the wilderness, from one place to another, like an epic quest like you would typically see in something like The Lord of the Rings, then you don’t necessarily need a map. On the other hand, the farther they’re going to go, the more helpful it is for both you and the audience to have one of these. If your characters are from a lot of different places, they’ve been brought together and there are cultural clashes and other things, and you keep referring to those various regions or kingdoms, people can become very interested in getting a better idea of where everything is in relation to each other. They might want a map.

Now, in a previous episode, Episodes 15 and 17, I talked about travel on land and on the water. In both cases, the ability to come up with believable time frames is helped by a map. But, on the other hand, the map can also constrain us a little bit if we feel like we’ve drawn it to scale, which is something that I encourage people not to do. It can help us and it can also be a hindrance, so you have to decide how much you want to worry about that. Personally, I find it to be very helpful because it helps me avoid making unrealistic estimates about how long someone’s going to take to get from one place to another. Just as importantly, it helps me avoid contradicting myself. This obviously matters more on a world that you intend to use repeatedly than one that you’re only going to use for a short story or just one novel.

One of the things I like to recommend to people is that you do create one world that you go more in-depth on and you plan to use for the rest of your career. And then, for the rest of the time you’re writing, you just create a setting for the particular story that you’re going to use. This gives you the best of both worlds as far as creating a lot of stuff that’s very detailed, for one, and then just kind of doing one-off stuff for another.

I also want to mention that you don’t have to create the entire continent map. You can just do the region that your story’s going to take place in. However, I do recommend that you have at least a rough idea of the other things that would affect that local region.

For example, figure out how far from the equator that area is. Figure out if there is a mountain range that is going to cause a rain shadow to happen. Just getting an idea for these kind of things is good. And you don’t have to draw them. You can just indicate, “Okay. There’s a mountain range off to the left. That’s where the ocean is. The equator is 400 miles to the south. Therefore, the prevailing winds are coming from the left.” Just kind of come up with some general parameters, even if you don’t draw them on the map.

One of the other pluses to map-making when it comes to continents is that if you do understand things like climate zones, as we discussed in a previous episode, it will basically decide for you where your climates are. That can help you figure out what kind of clothing people are typically wearing. Again, one of the biggest problems in world building is that you have so many decisions to make and we often can’t think of a reason to make one. Well, some of those decisions can be essentially made for us. If that sounds too restrictive, well, we still have creative latitude. That pun was actually not intended.

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Getting Started with Map Making

Now, there are a lot of programs that you can use to create maps. The process is basically the same regardless of what you use. The tool only determines some of the details of how you actually place things on the map. I happen to use a program called “Campaign Cartographer” which comes from Pro Fantasy. They have an optional add-on called “Fractal Terrains,” and I use this to generate a continent shape pretty quickly. You can just click a button and it gives you a new one. Or you can use some of the other techniques that I talked about in here, such as taking parts of existing continents and alerting them, flipping them around or even combining them with other continents. Once I have a shape that I like, I will pull that into Campaign Cartographer and then use the landmass tool, I think it’s called, to draw the shape of my continent over the top of that, and then hide the background image that I used as a source. My inability to draw is not a problem because I’m trying not to get it exactly the same anyway.

Figure 3: Erizon

Figure 3: Erizon

Once I’ve done this, I’m going to decide how far away from the equator this place is, and which hemisphere it is in if it’s only in one. This will tell me the direction of the prevailing winds. Once I do that, I can start drawing mountain ranges with an eye for what kind of affect that’s going to have on vegetation. That is the basic process that I suggest people follow.

After that, the details are a question of artistic imagination. Now, as it turns out, Campaign Cartographer comes with different color icons for different settlements, such as blue, gold or red. I tend to use that to depict all of the settlements that are in a given kingdom. This is one way that I use to indicate where one kingdom ends and another begins. One of the great things about that particular program is that you can create pretty large maps, and all you have to do is zoom out. And if you want a more regional map, you just zoom in more and you can just take a screenshot of that and use that with your book. And it does produce images that are professional quality. I have published those in many of the books, including the Creating Places book that we’re talking about here, when I made the examples for this book.

Now, if you don’t think you have the skills to do this, or maybe not the time or interest in acquiring them, you can certainly hire people to create maps for you, but you’re still going to probably need to at least describe what places look like, where they are and what life is like there to give people who are going to draw your map for you some idea of what to work from. But I would recommend learning how to do this because it’s fun and it really does spur the imagination.


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How to Create Settlement Maps

When it comes to settlement maps, these are included in books much less often. One problem I have found with trying to do a settlement map is that you only plan to use a few of the buildings in that settlement, and yet you’re going to have to draw so many of them. Once again, the challenge becomes how do you decide what to put where? This is one reason to base your settlement on something from Earth.

But another thing we can do is create something like an area that is considered old town. This is the area where this settlement first existed and, at one point in time, that was the entire town. Usually, this is going to form around or near the source of water. So, that’s one way to make this decision. Another way to get started is to figure out where a castle or similar fortification stands. Then we can start building outward from there.

Now, the idea of using an old town only works if this is a larger settlement, like a city, or if it’s an especially large town. If it’s a small town, then old town is the entirety of the town in most cases. Even so, you can still use the principle of starting where the water source is. I, personally, don’t usually create a settlement map, partly because I do have trouble envisioning that. But what I often do is, as I write the story, I start to have a mental image of how things are laid out, and that can actually help me. So, in that sense, I ended up doing it kind of backwards. What do I mean? Well, I start working on the story, or at least the plot of the story, and that helps me form the map in my head. I sometimes then start creating the actual map, fleshing out what I’ve pictured.

Village Map

Village Map

One reason to go ahead and draw the map, even if it’s coming after the fact, is that if you ever return to using the setting again, you won’t have to read your own book to understand where everything stands. I have this problem with a book I wrote about a decade ago where there was a pretty specific layout. I’m going to have to return to that book and my only way to know where everything is is to read my own book again. Of course, I’m going to do that anyway, but I might have to do it just to understand the layout. That particular city also had a really specific layout where it was important and it mattered to the plot where everything was. So, that is the kind of situation where you may want to create a settlement map.

Something else to keep in mind is the concept of zoning. What that means is that you’ve got commercial, industrial and, usually, residential areas. The residential areas are obviously where people live. The commercial is going to be all the stores. Those are typically near where people live and near the industrial areas. And, of course, the industrial is stuff like factories. One of the big decisions to make is that you want to keep the factories away from the living areas because factories typically smell, to keep it simple. Obviously, people don’t want that kind of pollution near where they live. This concept of zoning is something that can help you plan out a settlement on the large scale so that you have an understanding of what is where. Depending on the technological level of your settlement, it may make sense — and this often happens — where the industry is sometimes placed near the water. So, if you’ve got a river or a port, that tends to be where the industry is. If you’ve got a nice, little forest, or maybe a hill, that tends to be where residences will be. Then, of course, a hill is where something like a castle might be built upon.

I find that it’s often helpful to just have a general sense of where the rich people live and where the poor people live if they are segregated like that, and then where industry and residences are. Just kind of come up with a high-level idea before you start worrying about placing buildings.

Something you may also want to consider is whether you have multiple species there and if they are segregated at all. For example, elves tend to prefer trees, so there might be an area of your settlement that is heavily forested — maybe not heavily, but it at least has more trees, more parks, and that might be the area where the elves tend to live. If you had a species like dwarves where they often tunnel underground, you may have a castle that’s built on a cliff and the dwarves are allowed to build tunnels into those cliffs and have some of their homes there.


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How to Create Dungeon Maps

The last subject I’ll talk about briefly is dungeon and ship maps. These are something that we don’t typically see with books, but certainly come up with gaming. There is something about any sort of underground labyrinth that, for me as a reader, seems inherently confusing. I often don’t understand where the characters are in relation to where they were before. Even as an author, when I am trying to plan out what’s going to happen, once again, I often have trouble figuring out why does any corridor go this way or that way, or end up in this room, and what is that room for? In my story, the reason that room exists is that maybe I want them to be attacked there, but that room should have an actual purpose that the people who invented or created that place had for it. This can be even more difficult for us to figure out than why everything in a city is where it is.

Now, if you’ve ever worked as a janitor or a field like that where you are typically in the bowels of a building, you may have some better understanding of what’s going on with things like boiler rooms and other facilities that are required to operate that building in an efficient manner and in a comfortable manner for its occupants. Those are the kinds of functions that are most likely going to be going on in an underground area.

Of course, another one of these is the dungeon. When creating a dungeon, you may want to think about how something like a prison is laid out. I haven’t looked into this, but I would image that an abandoned prison, like Alcatraz, might have maps online where you can get a feel for how this place is laid out because it’s no longer in use, and therefore there’s not as much of a secret. When a prison is being used, obviously the inmates shouldn’t know all of the nooks and crannies of this place. So, a map of a currently used prison may not be available, but we can probably find one for an abandoned one to get some sense of the layout of such a place.

But one thing that immediately comes to mind for me is that most buildings don’t have these long hallways that go off into various tangents and there’s no rooms on either side of them. Every time there’s a hallway, there’s always a room immediately on each side of every square feet of these hallways. By contrast, it so often seems that in fantasy in particular there is some sort of underground hallway that’s going for a certain distance, and then it just branches, seemingly at random, at some location. And then that hallway also branches again. Eventually, here and there, they find little rooms. This sort of thing seems to be based on something like the Pyramids from Egypt where the impression is that these hallways do this kind of thing. But, even then, I don’t think that’s accurate because if you look at the schematics for some of these pyramids, there are very few passages inside them.

The point I’m trying to get at with any sort of underground area or dungeon map is to make it a believable space that was once used and which is now abandoned. Try not to create hallways that go off in seemingly random directions and there’s no rhyme or reason for them.

How to Create Ship Maps
Figure 58 Corvette

Figure 58 Corvette

Now, when it comes to ship maps, there are kind of two kinds here. There’s the wooden ships, like the man-o-war, and then there’s the space ship. For a wooden ship, there are pictures online, and even on where I have some links to this, where you can see the internal structure of a wooden ship. While it’s not a map, it does show you where everything is located. It can be a good idea, if you’re going to really use the interior of a ship, to take a look at one of these maps and just use that as your source. The average person has not seen one of these and they really don’t understand it, so you don’t have to make up something so much as you can leverage the way ships are actually built.

When it comes to spaceships that you are inventing, I think it’s a good idea to have at least a rough understanding of each deck of that ship and what is there on the port side, on the aft side, on the starboard side and at the front of the ship. One reason for this is that you’re going to want to be consistent when you have your characters travel from one area of that ship to another for a specific purpose, such as going from the bridge to engineering because something is going on in engineering. You don’t want to say it takes 10 minutes at one part of your book, and then, in another book you’re using that same ship in, now it takes 15 minutes to get there.

Having a map can also make it easier to decide that one side of the ship was impacted during a battle and, as a result, there are certain functions of that ship that have been compromised. You can, of course, make up that sort of thing on the fly, but that can lead us to doing things that are too convenient, such as deciding that all the food replicators have gone offline because that’s what your story needs. Well, if you’ve already decided that those are on the right side of the ship, and engineering was also on the right side of the ship, you can also decide that there was some sort of damage to engineering. But if we haven’t already decided that, we’re not going to think of collateral damage that might make it more believable.

In other words, when planning damage to a ship, try not to have the damage only cause the exact impact that you need for your story. There could be other impacts that don’t really drive the plot, but which are believable.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from the same album called “A Trill A Minute.” You can hear more at Check out for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!


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