How To Create Continent Maps


We should decide on our initial goal: are we intending to draw a continent or the region around where our story takes places?

Continent First

For a continent, we can base the overall size on an existing Earth one or just a region, like a country (or several). A smaller area, like a U.S. state or province like those in Canada can also be used but might be designated an island. In all cases, we’ll just surround it with water instead of other land masses. This analogue can help our sense of scale, distance, and travel times.

With this decided, we can begin drawing a shape for our coastline. Nature doesn’t create straight lines, typically, so the inability to draw one is not a disadvantage. We can once again base part of this on Earth analogues. Just don’t use an entire coastline for even one side of a continent. We can take the west edge of Spain, the south edge of Britain, the region between North Carolina and Florida for the east, and the northern coastline of South America. We can also draw all of these on the “wrong” coastline. Stealing continent edges this way takes the difficulty out of this, and if you miss draw it, so much the better. We could also trace these.

We should have a general sense of what climates we want. This will determine how far from the equator the continent is.  A broad, inclusive climate range means a land mass that runs thousands of miles north to south, if the planet is at all Earth-like in size. Make this decision early because it determines which direction the prevailing winds are. And as we learned in Chapter 2, “Creating a Planet,” this predicts where rain shadows from mountain ranges develop. This affects the amount of vegetation, causing everything from dense forest to arid deserts.

But first, we’ll want to decide where those mountain ranges are, using what we learned from Chapter 3, “Creating a Continent.” Nature often places one range along the edge of a continent, with deep water (and possibly sea monsters) just offshore. Find a place you’d like this, the best culprits being on the eastern or western shores; a northern or southern range means a single climate (cold or hot) takes place in that mountain range, which provides less variety.

For a second range that’s somewhat parallel, choose a different length and starting point rather than starting at the same latitude or longitude and traversing the same distance. With a range that’s more perpendicular to existing ones, try not to form right angles like an upper case “L.” Placing empty space between two such ranges helps prevent this. Remember that there are different kinds of mountain ranges and that we can place solitary peaks, or a few in a row, virtually anywhere. We don’t have to create every mountain range at once, being able to work on one region of our map at a time, but it can be helpful to do so if we have ideas.

With this decided, and with our knowing which way prevailing winds blow at the latitude where this mountain range stands, we can determine where rain shadows and therefore deserts exist. If there’s a significant gap between two ranges that are north and south of each other, for example, moisture may get through there and cause a forest near that gap. Also, remember that smaller mountain ranges cause less of a rain shadow. Knowing these things allows us some flexibility to justify having a forest where a desert might actually lie if the peaks were taller. Using Google maps, we can look at satellite images of continents and figure out what typically happens; these show ranges, vegetation, and deserts.

We’ll want to draw some rivers that flow toward the sea, possibly stopping at a large lake first. And this fresh water is where our settlements will be, as humans cannot consume salt water without becoming sick (but we can invent a species that can). When creating a continent map, we don’t need to draw every lake; in fact, doing so would be impractical, just as every river would be. This is one justification for putting a settlement somewhere that water doesn’t appear on the map, but do this on purpose, not by accident.

Vegetation will grow around rivers and lakes, but it will also grow on the opposite side of a mountain range from the desert that a rain shadow causes. Generally, we’ll want a forest on one side, a desert on the other. However, if the prevailing winds are east to west (or vice versa), and the mountains are also running that way, then the winds aren’t being blocked by the peaks; the winds are parallel. This makes forest on each side likely, but desert on either side unlikely.

Local Region First

If we’re creating a map for a specific story, we might only need a regional drawing that focuses on the area where our story occurs. This requires knowing our story’s requirements regarding land features that impact storytelling and whether weather plays a role. First make a decision about what you need for each. Weather determines latitude, as does the need for a rain forest or frozen tundra. If only one is needed, we could move our continent north or south (depending on which hemisphere it’s in). If both cold and hot are needed, a more temperate zone or longer continent (north to south) might be needed. With this decision made, we can choose latitude, basing this on an Earth continent or country if needed for better understanding.

With latitude and hemisphere decided, we can understand which direction the prevailing winds blow. We might not be drawing the whole continent, but if we decide to place mountains along a north-south trajectory, then wind direction will determine rain shadows and vegetation locations. For example, if the winds blow east and we place a north-south range on the eastern edge, then a forest will be between the ocean and range, and a desert will be to the range’s west. If we don’t want a desert, then put the mountain range somewhere else, such as on the western edge or more east-to-west.

With such information, we can decide what land features surrounded the settlement or region where the story takes place. While our focus might be on that area, approaching development from the continental mindset helps us be realistic. We don’t need to ever draw the rest of the land mass. It does help to have some idea how much land is in either direction, however. A region at the coast has an ocean or sea available to it, and therefore shipping and trade options unavailable to a landlocked area. The number of potential allies and enemies in every direction also matters to overall mindset, but these are less mapping issues than world building ones.