To Build a World From a Grain of Sand

By Alexandria Harris

William Blake would be so proud.

I had a moment the other day and took his famous line “to see the world in a grain of sand”  literally. I wanted to build a map like Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. Not an exact replica, although there was this interesting tutorial on how to age cardboard to look like genuine parchment paper (that I will be trying when I have the time).

No, I actually wanted to try being a pseudo cartographer and make my own world. Technically I had already done it. Before I started my book Forbidden Fruit, I did some Norse mythology research and mapped everything out.

However, in the Prose and Poetic Eddas, there are some loopholes/areas to be explored that I fully exploited.

For example, the origin of elves can be traced back all the way to Norse mythology and explained in one sentence: the elf world was given to the god Freyr as a teething present. That’s it. No coming from thin air, being formed from fire, or etc. It’s a writer’s gold mine. There are so many whos, whats, wheres, and whys to be asked and answered that it’s exhilarating.

Only later does it get muddled into dark elves, light elves, Jacob Grimm’s interpretation, J.R.R Tolkien’s interpretation. It’s no wonder people are fascinated with them–there is a lot of material to be explored.

Another such example is that one of the Nine Worlds, Vanheimr, is mentioned maybe twice in the Eddas but apparently its inhabitants were at war with the more popular world we all hear about, Asgard. And only five gods (depending on the historian) are mentioned as being from this world, but they are all assimilated into Asgard as hostages after a huge war.

What was this world like? There had to be more people on it. What happened to them after the most powerful gods were taken from them? The Eddas do mention one incident (they killed the gods their gods were exchanged for because they thought they’d been cheated) but that’s it. I attempt to fill in the blanks.

But continents, forests, and seas are some pretty big blanks to come up with out of thin air while still staying true to the material. Creating an entire world is pretty daunting. Every little detail needs to be accounted for so that it makes sense.

Naturally, my first step had to be making a map. A hand sketch was fine, but if I wanted to eventually put it in a book, I knew I’d find myself at the computer sooner or later.

I assumed someone had done it before, so away to the online world I went. And some people had, kind of. Holly Lisle probably had the most comprehensive and encouraging advice, with examples. Programs existed for people who designed video games, but little else. It took me a while because most of the time people are interested in actually living in the world instead of creating their own.

No one really had a free program that one could just get on and start designing. Even the paid ones were hit or miss and looked really bad. I found out really quickly that apparently the best way was to hand draw it with an Atlas to get realistic land edges for however you wanted your world to be, scan it into your computer, and Photoshop or GIMP it to death.

Since I only had a large Atlas book of the states in the U.S. and Canada, my worlds consist of  a hodge-podge of Iowa, Montana, the bottom half of Florida, Maryland, and Quebec.

To make a long story a lot less shorter, I’m still working on it. The main point is that through a lot of effort, people who read my book might feel more connected with the locations I’ve created if I make maps for them. Enhancing people’s literary experiences, especially the visual learners, is one of my goals.

I always enjoyed seeing where everything was in Middle Earth and in Game of Thrones. It makes you feel as if you really are seeing what happened. And while the maps of my locations may never look as good as Middle Earth, people can at least have fun appreciating the reason I did not study cartography.

Alexandria Harris is a writer and former reporter on WSUM 91.7. When she isn’t watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy on repeat, she tweets regularly as @_ALHarris. Alexandria lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.