Making Maps: Part II

In Part One we explored the fundamental principles of oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, and deserts; how they’re formed and the nature of their being. This week we’re continuing on with our geographical quest by looking at forests, mountains, hills, volcanoes, wetlands, and ice and snow. By the end of this two-part article, you should have all of the basic tools to help you chisel out the maps of your secondary worlds with the confidence of a cartographer.



Forests are home to a lot of fantasy settings. Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings. Elvandar in the Riftwar Saga. Fantasy writers love forests. Here are the guiding principles to do with how they form and the effect they have on the wider world. 

  • Forests can grow anywhere in which the temperature rises above 10 degrees Celsius during the warmest months and sees average rainfall (or precipitation in general) of more than 8 inches a year.
  • The difference between a wood and a forest lies in the extent of the canopy. A forest has canopies covering over 10% of the sky. A wood’s is between 5 and 10%.
  • The type of trees which grow in a forest is dependent upon the temperature, amount of rainfall, and soil.
  • For example in cool, subpolar regions, hardy conifers like pines, spruces and larches, dominate the land. This type of forest is known as a taiga or boreal forest. They have long winters, with between 10 and 20 inches of rainfall a year.
  • In forests of a warmer climate, the type of trees mix between conifers and broad-leaved deciduous trees (those which lose their leaves each year). The substrate here is mostly brown soil with sandy sections.
  • Deciduous forests occur where the average temperature is above 10 degrees Celsius for at least six months of the year with precipitation above 16 inches. The types of trees found in these forests include elms, oaks, birches, maples, beeches, and aspens. The ground here is a brown soil, rich in nutrients.
  • Tropical rainforests develop in more humid conditions. Heavy rainfall, about 100 inches per year, supports evergreens which possess broad leaves to capture light. The soil is rich in iron or aluminium which gives it a red or yellow hue.


Mountains and volcanoes 

Mountains make for a challenging and unpredictable setting, with howling winds and freezing temperatures. Think of all of the scenes featuring mountains where someone is thrown into oblivion below, grasping at the air as they descend. The Vale in A Song of Ice and Fire is kingdom surround by a mountain range. Even The Eyrie, it’s keep, is built on a mountain. Gandalf tried to lead the Fellowship over Moria, only to turn back. They provide obstacles to get around, challenges to overcome. And they make a great lair for bad guys. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Mountains are the foundations of life. They act as water towers, manipulating the weather to create rain and snow which in turn forms streams, which turn into rivers. Without them, there would be no drinking water and no habitats in which life can survive.
  • There is no generally accepted definition for how tall a mountain has to be. Some say 1,000 feet, others 2,000. A chap named Roderick Peattie came up with a subjective definition which I’m quite a fan of. He said a mountain ought to be defined based on its ability to command attention, their impact on human imagination, and their individuality.
  • Certain types of mountains can grow. Tectonic plate movement pushes the Earth’s crust upwards. Everest, for instance, grows around 4mm a year.
  • Sticking with the types of a mountain, there are four in all: fold, block, dome, and volcanic. Most are found in groups, referred to as, you guessed it, ranges. The highest point is known as a peak or summit, the bottom the base.
  • Block mountains. These form when a slab of land breaks off at a fault line in the crust and is forced up as two tectonic plates push together.
  • Dome mountains. These occur when magma within the earth forces the ground upward. Like a nasty boil. The magma doesn’t break the surface.
  • Fold mountains. These are the most common type of mountain and occur when two tectonic plates push against each other over many years, making more folds.
  • These are vital to earth’s survival, providing chemical elements and minerals to water, the land and atmosphere. There are four types with differing appearances: shield (large with gentle slopes), stratovolcano (large with steep slopes), caldera (shaped like a cauldron), and cinder cone (a straight, steep mound). All but the cinder cone volcano tend to have more than one vent through which magma erupts. On Earth, more volcanoes exist beneath the ocean.
  • Plateaus are creations of mountains. When one is formed, blocks of earth can drop and lie next to each other to produce flat land. The Tibetan plateau is one example.
  • The length of mountain ranges can vary. The mid-ocean ridge, for example, is about 40,389 miles long.


Hills and valleys

 In the vast plains in between our cities, mountains, rivers and other landmarks, there lie other features which bring life and richness to our worlds: hills and valleys. Throughout history, these points in the land have made for terrific tactical and defensive positions. Rome, for instance, was built on seven hills so invaders could be sighted from afar.

  • A hill is a piece of land with sloping sides which rises higher than everything around it. They’re usually less steep than a mountain. The top is also called the summit.
  • Hills can form in a variety of ways. One natural way is the result of a geologic process known as faulting. The Earth’s crust shifts and moves and changes the landscape, forming hills. They can also form as a result of glacial activity.
  • Hills are also formed by erosion, when bits of rock, soil, and sediment get washed away to form a pile. But just as erosion can create hills, it can destroy them too.
  • Hills can be made by people. They go by the name of mounds.
  • There are different types of hills: A drumlin is a long hill formed by the movement of glaciers. A butte is a steep-sided, flat-topped hill which stands alone in a flat area. A puy is a conical, volcanic hill.
  • A valley is a depressed area of land, usually shaped like a ‘U’ or ‘V’, formed by the forces of gravity, water, and ice. Rivers and streams cut through valleys and are usually responsible for the ‘V’ shape. Glaciers form valleys by slowly creeping downhill, picking up rocks on their way down and grinding anything in its path. These usually leave a ‘U’ shape in their path. There’s another type of valley called a rift; giant, gaping formations where two pieces of the Earth’s crust have been separated. The Great Rift Valley is one example.



Swamps, bogs, mires, and marshes provide for another interesting feature on your map. The Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings is one example which pops to mind. Here’s a clip below:

In my experience, they’re pretty underused and make for an intriguing, spooky setting. Here’s a bit about them:

  • Wetland is the all-encompassing term for swamps, marshes etc. Wetlands are any bit of land saturated by water, where the water level is at, near or above the surface of the ground.
  • Wetlands perform crucial functions, such as flood control and coastal storm buffers.
  • Swamps are a common type of wetland. It’s an area of land permanently saturated or filled with water, some even covered by it. They come in two types: freshwater swamps, which are found inland, and saltwater swamps which are found, unsurprisingly, by coastal areas.
  • Freshwater swamps: these form around lakes and streams. Cypress and tupelo trees are found in such places, along with Spanish moss which hangs from trees, and duckweed which covers the water’s surface. An example of a freshwater swamp is the Everglades.
  • Saltwater swamps: form along tropical coastlines. Seawater pools during high tides over time. Usually, mangrove trees are found in these places.


Snow and Ice

Beyond the Wall in A Song of Ice and Fire is a mysteriously appealing place, filled with giants, White Walkers, and dire wolves. It’s an iconic setting in the books and TV series. But how did it all come about? How did it get so cold? And how did all that ice form? In looking at the history of Antarctica we can gain an understanding of the nature of these icy planes and how they occur:

  • It’s not exactly certain how Antarctica was formed. Very helpful, I know. At one time, it was a land not dissimilar to the European Alps, with alpine mountains and all kinds of flora and fauna thriving there. Until it all turned a bit cold.
  • The average depth of the ice covering the continent is about a mile thick. That’s one hell of a change.
  • One leading theory is that a reduction in Earth’s carbon dioxide levels—thereby cooling the global temperatures—as well as changes in its orbit, caused a great degree of cooling. It led to glaciers forming on the land, which grew over millions of years.
  • The position of the icy continent has a polar influence too, which is part of the reason for the nature of the north and south poles.

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9 thoughts on “Making Maps: Part II

  1. One thing about northern trees. They don’t depend on a tap root. With permafrost only a couple feet down in a lot of places, the trees here – spruce, birch, and cottonwood mostly – all have a wide sprawl of roots but no tap root, so when they do fall over, they tend to rip up a serious chunk of ground. Cottonwoods have really really long roots and a plethora of runner roots to hold them in place. Boy when one of those goes, it can be a disaster.

    As far as Antarctica is concerned, I do believe the latest says it drifted there with the tectonic plate movement.

      1. I didn’t get a notification of your reply, so sorry this is so late. I live about 80 miles north and slight to the left of Anchorage. If you look on a map, look for the Yentna River and find Lake Creek. I live about two miles from there on the far side of the Yentna from Lake Creek.

  2. It’s definitely useful to recognize the origins, benefits, and overall “role” of each feature in the larger systems of the environmental world. I remember one author at a panel who talked about how a young writer wanted their story to take place in a desert region, but had no understanding of what environmental conditions cause a desert to form, and for him (the author), it completely broke the believability of the story.
    When in doubt, I think it’s good to start with the longitude/latitude of the existing world, and then tweak and reshape the land and sea to suit the narrative you want, but make sure that any major features (mountain ranges, deserts, and different types of forests) remain in their original general region.
    One trick I heard that seems really neat is to take a small sample of a coastline, like a single North American coastal state, and enlarge it to be the size of the entire continent. Apparently the shapes of coastlines scale very well.

    1. I totally agree. I’d find it difficult writing a story in a setting I didn’t understand. It makes sense to learn about it. Love the coastline idea. I’ll have to try it. Thank you for reading!

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