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  1. #1

    Help make the distribution of terrain types in my map realistic

    I have written a fantasy novel and have created a map for it. However, I have little idea of what the distribution of different terrains should be like at its scale. For example, how many pixels the individual forests within farmland should take up, how large the gaps between farm pixels in the desert should be, and things like that. (Each pixel is about 3 km across.) The world has roughly 15th century European technology with no magic. The climate changes from a desert one in the far south to a temperate one in the far north.

    I am fully aware that the massive areas of forest are unrealistic; I originally thought up the map when I was 13. I don't see the point of removing them until I know exactly what to replace them with.

    Any other feedback is welcome.

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    Last edited by Riptide; 12-29-2013 at 12:25 AM.

  2. #2
    Guild Expert jbgibson's Avatar
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    Oct 2009
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    Map in first post - well done, and welcome! We always appreciate those willing to pitch right in. Therefore worth a bit of starter reputation (the little squares beneath peoples' names in posts).

    Initial reaction - nothing necessarily wrong with great swaths of forest. It is said that when Europeans first showed up in North America, a squirrel could run tree to tree from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Ain't hyperbole The Best Thing Ever?!?!?! :-) In any case - there's plenty of reasons forests could exist in broad areas alongside human-developed lands. Soil too crummy for agriculture? Holy areas not to be touched? Crown lands held for hunting? Critters too tenacious & dangerous to permit clearing? Abandoned farmsteads from a hundred years before (remembering big forests need not necessarily have been there forever, and regrowth happens startlingly quickly)? Plantations (maple syrup and turpentine being the trade goods of choice??) Simple rugged terrain? Bet you can devise a dozen more - and better!

    Do you LIKE those various landcover types where they are? I see nothing inherently implausible going on. Especially since you wisely say those watercourses are rivers AND canals :-).

    Is the map for your purposes, as a writing aid? Or will a version be published with the book(s)? If the latter - paper or digital? Color maps in paper books take a lot of selling....

  3. #3


    Two of my editors said the book would be better with a map, so a version will be published with it. I was planning on a color paper map.

  4. #4
    Guild Expert jbgibson's Avatar
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    Oct 2009
    Alabama, USA


    Do you have examples that these people have published maps in before? One ought to ensure that expectations aren't too terribly mismatched. I see *very* few full-color maps in books, though there's plenty of B&W line art ones, and some grayscale halftones. If they're thinking one color - black - and you're thinking four color lithography, that which you produce may be wholly unusable. Mind you, if they do plan to foot the bill for nice color plates, then you should oblige with the best work possible! Illustrations can sell a book, and I'm sure you want the thing sold in great quantity, yes? Are you talking bound-in or separate, folded, in a pocket? The latter gives you the delightful opportunity to present at a bit better scale than typical page limits.

    Though one compromise position I have seen in some instances is for a book to have black & white illustrations and maps, and a supplemental website carries extra material. Not a bad way to gen up more interest in what you're writing too, by the way. And as such things go, web space is cheap.

    As for the actual question you asked :-) ... I wouldn't expect such a map to detail every bit of dissimilar landcover. I'd figure something symbolized as plains grassland to have the occasional copse or woods. Forest zones likewise have no reason to show every little clearing and mid-forest city, even. Deserts might show oases if significant, but that might be only one in ten, right? Just as the coastline shows indentations, but not every piddling little fishing harbor and smugglers' inlet.

  5. #5


    Do you know what percent of medieval temperate countries was not farmed? According to book The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, only 7% of it was forest, but according to the website Medieval Demographics Made Easy, at least a third of a medieval country would be wilderness, and that wilderness would be mostly forested hills. Which is right?

    Additionally, would the percent of pixels in the map that are wilderness match up with the percent of the area that is forest? For instance, much of the wilderness could be too thinly spread to show up, forcing the map to be underrepresentative of the wilderness.

  6. #6


    Hi Riptide. I've moved your very interesting post to the 'How do I???' section where you may get more replies.

    I think the answer to your Ross vs. Mortimer question may be that it depends on the country and method of measurement. Medieval England was quite densely populated (although this fluctuated with the plague) compared to a lot of mainland Europe. I found the 7% woodland stat in 'The Time Traveller's Guide...' (a fantastic book and my main 'go to' guide when creating medieval fantasy worlds) surprising too. A little google-fu led me to this corroborating piece:

    Before consulting the archaeological research, my assumption — widely  shared, I suspect — was that England was largely wooded until the  arrival of the Romans. Prehistoric Britons might have made a few inroads  into the densely forested valleys, but preferred the wide-open expanses  of Salisbury Plain or other high, treeless places such as Dartmoor or  the Berkshire Downs. The Romans cleared some lowland areas for their  settlements and built connecting roads. With the arrival and gradual  domination of the Anglo-Saxons during the Dark Ages, more woodland was  slowly lost, and a pattern of villages emerged, ready for the Domesday Book to record after the Norman conquest.
     This understanding has now been shown to be wholly inaccurate. Much  of England had been cleared as early as 1000 BCE, some two millennia  beforehand. The Bronze Age saw intensive farming on a scale that we are  only just beginning to appreciate. As Oliver Rackham puts it in The History of the Countryside:
    It can no longer be maintained, as used to be  supposed even 20 years ago, that Roman Britain was a frontier province,  with boundless wild woods surrounding occasional precarious clearings on  the best land. On the contrary, even in supposedly backward counties  such as Essex, villa abutted on villa for mile after mile, and most of  the gaps were filled by small towns and the lands of British farmsteads.
     Rackham describes the immense clearance undertaken during the Bronze  Age, boldly claiming that ‘to convert millions of acres of wildwood into  farmland was unquestionably the greatest achievement of any of our  ancestors’. He reminds us how difficult it was to clear the woodland, as  most British species are difficult to kill: they will not burn and they  grow again after felling. Moreover, in his dry phrase, ‘a log of more  than 10 inches in diameter is almost fireproof and is a most  uncooperative object’. The one exception was pine, which burns well and,  perhaps as a consequence, disappeared almost completely from southern  Britain, the presumption being that prehistoric man could easily burn  the trees where they stood: the image of pine trees burning like beacons  across the countryside is a strong one. Only with the Forestry  Commission in the 20th century were large numbers of conifers  reintroduced.
    A list of percentage forest distribution in the modern world can be found here : interestingly it has England and Scotland at 17% woodland - 10% more than in Medieval times - if the figures are accurate and if we are comparing apples to apples - I suspect methods of measurement give huge differences in results.

    Having said all of that, if what you are writing is fantasy then you may need the landscape to serve the story: much fantasy requires remote areas and you will often need to factor travel time into your work which means you might need to take liberties with the landscape so it fits into you pacing and plot. For example, if you were to use an accurate landscape model, then it might require a character weeks to travel on foot or horse from a densely populated area to a remote one. If that doesn't fit with your story-line, then nobody is going to pick you up for compressing your landscape somewhat and removing vast areas of suburbia or satellite villages and towns to cities.

    Best of luck with your novel!

  7. #7


    Are you sure you read the table right? It seems to say Scotland has 17% forest cover, but England has 7%, which fits with The Time Traveler's Guide saying that forest cover in England is basically the same now as in the 14th century.

    My novel is set almost entirely within towns and on main roads so the attempts to get the terrain realistic are mainly for sequels I might write and the fact that unrealistic anything annoys me.

  8. #8


    You are quite right! It does say 7% for England.

    What I find amazing is that although the forest cover then and now is 7%, the populations were miles apart. I'll need to look it up for you, but there is an interesting resource on google books about population distributions in medieval Britain. Small huddled hamlets and villages rather larger connurbations might make for good story material.

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