Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Maps: Why to use them, and how to create them in Excel

One of the things that I've discovered is very helpful for worldbuilding and description is the creation of maps. I am pretty good at visualizing things in my head - far better than my husband, for example, when someone says, "okay, so imagine if we put this piece of furniture here, and moved that one over there..." On the other hand, when it comes to imagining complex spaces and how lots of different rooms intersect and feed into each other, I can get lost.

So it was really obvious to me that I needed a map of Varin... I drew it out years ago, looking at all the different climatic regions and where the cities were located, where the Roads between the cities led, and what the coasts looked like.

I'm afraid that was a picnic, however, compared to trying to map the cities and the buildings. The city of Pelismara remains mostly in my head, because it is quite large and has five vertical levels. One day maybe I'll discover either that someone is dying to map it for me, or that there's some awesome computer program that can do it. For now, I have sketched maps of the grounds of the Eminence's Residence, the basic layout of the Residence itself and some of the landmarks here and there.

Yesterday, I decided I'd better tie down precisely the layout of the suite that my characters live in in my newly completed novel. It is very complex, and in order for it to work properly everything has to line up, because it has two areas: the noble family's dwelling, which has to be relatively compact compared to what people often imagine for rich people's homes, and then the servants' areas, which have to articulate with the rooms used by the nobility but also make independent sense. I was reviewing my mental sense of the place and realizing that I had two overlapping models for at least one of the rooms, and wasn't sure where closets were, etc. etc. So I sat down and tried to draw it with a pencil, and it was a mess. Once I'd re-sized things several times and started wanting to move things around a bit, I was ready to scream.

So I went into Excel. To use Excel for mapping, take all the columns and re-size them so that they are 0.2 inches wide. This will mean that instead of big long rectangles, you're working with tiny squares. I have tried this before but it was a bit unwieldy, and last night I discovered how to make it much easier. Don't try to use borders at first. Map your spaces using the "fill" tool. I used an algorithm of one square = one square foot. That way I could select a space, keep the mouse held down and look in the upper left corner and let Excel tell me exactly its dimensions (in columns and rows), and then fill it with color, move it around, expand it by using the format copying paintbrush, or shrink it by moving other pieces over it. Once you have you layout, add the borders at the end to mark walls and doors (if they are thin enough). I've actually had to count one-foot-thick stone walls, so I'm building them in the same way I did the rooms.

It was the easiest time I've ever had wrestling with this complex map. I hope the technique may help you with similar challenges.