Worldbuilding: The Top of the Map

Barry Cunliffe’s On the Ocean: the Mediterranean and the Atlantic from prehistory to AD 1500 makes an interesting choice in perspective for their original maps. They orient the maps not to the north, as is standard in modern practice, but with west at the top. The setting sun. For untold thousands of years, the end of the known world. Why shouldn’t it be the most important place on the map?

If you bring up the advent of the compass, bear in mind that in Han China where it was invented, south was declared to be the top of maps. Different cultures have different perspectives. Sometimes literally.

As human beings we tend to both poke at and recoil from different perspectives. We assume that ours works the best – after all, we’re still alive – but we can’t help but wonder if there’s some new advantage or monster around the corner that a stranger might know about and we don’t. Yet. And we’d rather not find out the hard way. It’s human to be very curious about strangers. To the point that local strongmen (warlords, barons, kings, what have you) would often host strangers from far away, to hear what they knew, and what they thought. Because sometimes having a different perspective lets you solve problems no one else could.

Bear in mind, I’m not saying you should put west-oriented maps in your fantastic fiction. Part of the reason On the Ocean’s maps are so visually effective is you’re mentally comparing them to familiar maps of the Atlantic and Mediterranean basin. On a fictional map, whether planet or fantasy kingdom, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective, because there’s no original basis for comparison.

(Huh. Maps as a fanfiction of the planet. Odd thought.)

But if you do draw a map, or crib one from reality with a few alterations, try mentally placing your characters in that map. Work out which directions are the most important to them, and to the people around them. Which part of the sky warns you of bad weather first? What direction will the bandits ride in from? What terrain will a passing army favor – and where should you be to stay well out of their way?

(Because historically speaking armies are a bunch of very unhappy people feeling very deprived, and not all commanders can ride herd on their men well enough to stop chickens from going missing and girls being cornered in the fields or back alleys. Or want to, even if they can. Disciplined armies who aren’t supposed to touch civilians are a very recent thing.)

You have to strike a balance between presenting a new and unique perspective, and writing a story your readers can viscerally get. It’s not easy, but when it works, it’s worth it.

You might even think of yourself as one of those strangers in court; Telemachus hosted by King Nestor, or Marco Polo in the court of Kubilai Khan. You’re the guest. Part of your duty is to be polite… but also part is to say things your hosts would never.

Examine perspectives in your story. See how the map can change things!

26 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: The Top of the Map

  1. Or want to, even if they can.

    That infamous “pope banned crossbows” thing was actually more like “the Pope orders all Christians to not commit war crimes when killing each other.” Stuff like not being able to kill farmers and priests….

    11. We also prescribe that priests, clerics, monks, pilgrims, merchants and peasants, in their coming and going and their work on the land, and the animals with which they plough and carry seeds to the fields, and their sheep {10} , be left in peace at all times.

    For anybody interested, the “murderous art” was that they’d figured out the mass volley method of taking down the other guy’s numbers, where you kind of hope that you only injure folks, not kill them out right, because the it takes out TWO guys, one trying to save the other.
    Not the folk-lore “oh no, peasants can kill knights” thing.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I’m now seeing a handful of foreign travelers with a local map (no compass on map, but west on top because “everyone” does it that way) and a magnetic compass getting very, very lost…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. *laughs*

      I’m terrible with maps, and such, if I don’t know the mountains to get my directions off of– but any kind of detail SHOULD make it relatively easy to orient the map to the terrain, unless it’s EXTREMELY simple. Like, “mountain range is a few little triangles, cities are marked, and the REALLY BIG river is marked, nothing else” type simple.

      I can manage city maps by orienting off of the roads, rather than directions….

      Liked by 4 people

      1. For me the problem is less on the map end, and more on my end.
        There have been plenty of times when I look around and can’t pick out any useful landmarks at all.

        If you’re deep in a forest, it’s perfectly possible to be unable to see a mountain range, and wander around for hours looking for a good view.
        (Climbing lodge-pole pines is… challenging.)

        Being in the middle of a mountain range means there’s mountains in every direction.

        Even a large river can be virtually invisible unless you’re standing in it.

        And with any natural landmark, they will often twist and turn.
        So it’s going north at one part and going west at another part, and you think the the map is obviously oriented one way…

        Liked by 3 people

      2. (Climbing lodge-pole pines is… challenging.)

        We were always in the mountains.

        The “trick” mom told us was to go down.

        If you keep going down, you’ll eventually hit water.

        If you follow the water down, you’ll hit bigger water.

        And eventually, you WILL hit people, by following the water.


        The valleys I grew up in are less than 20 miles across– there are mountains, yes, but Western USA, the point mostly the same way. 😀

        I was looking more at maps that would be…like a town map, vs a state map.
        You can usually see two landmarks at the same time for town size, but not for state size.

        Liked by 5 people

      3. I had to get a new map every year. Of grade school. Seriously. Drove the teachers insane.

        I’m better at orienting myself now, but it’s not my highest skill!

        …Which is ironically how I usually end up being the navigator for any trip, ’cause I’ve gotten out the maps and planned it.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Only if anybody has a compass!

        There should be something to indicate “this side up,” but– how many people are going to notice a stylized sun over the top of the map? Especially since I pulled that example from my memory of many pretty, old maps, and the sun is in the north on those? If you’re not expecting it to mean “this side to the (rising/setting) sun…..

        K, only slightly related, but I GOTTA tell my one Really Cool seastory…which was in Death Valley.
        I got to help calibrate a Compass Rose while our F-18s were doing touch-and-goes on the runway next to us.
        They actually have giant, on the ground, versions of the map Compass Rose symbols, and you take a big magnet machine out there every few years and put freakin’ magnets into the asphalt so that they can park the planes on it and make sure their compasses are correct. I was basically there for grunt work and because our office head knew that THIS IS AWESOME and dragged all of us out there, but– now you know!
        China Lake, if anyone is interested. And yes, you can look at the base map that is right by the public road and maybe an inch inside of the base’s property, see that it has LABELED hangers 1, 2, and 5, and look over the oleander bushes and count five hanger buildings.
        My mom and I nearly busted a gut over that when she came to keep me company, changing duty stations to there.

        If anybody wants to use the location, VX-31 and VX-9 are the squadrons there. “X” means experimental.

        ….no, it was nothing like as freaking cool as it sounds. In fact, they had a mercury thermometer explode on the flight line while I was there….. ::lame joke warning:::

        But if you need a desert town with excuses for weird stuff, it’s a good choice. When I was there, the place that sold comics was also the “everything hippy, new age or Spiritual” store.

        Liked by 3 people

      1. Not too mention magnetic anomalies that skew the compass readings, especially in mountainous/rugged terrain…

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I’ve spent numerous weeks in the summer sailing the Baltic with my uncle, and even GPS/Plotters don’t prevent confusion when trying to orient yourself to where your boat is, and the course you want/need to steer. Especially when under sail, and tacking. Double especially in the Scandinavian archipelagos/skerries of Sweden, Finnland, and Norway, where you’ve often got twisty waterways to follow between the islets, rocks, and shallows. It becomes difficult, even in good visibility and relatively open waterways, to pick out which nagivation marker/landmark is the right one to steer to, because depth perception gets unreliable at longer distances, and parallax plays tricks.


  3. Not only are disciplined armies recent, in many cases they actually planned for “foraging” as part of their logistics.

    After all, with bad roads, and slow walking, and fodder for horses, it adds up really quick.

    This in turn leads to “scorched earth” strategies, to deprive advancing armies food…
    A war is basically a plague, famine, and natural disaster all rolled into one.

    But it does make you wonder how fantasy magic could shift the equations.

    Bags of Holding and Create Food and Water could lead to “clean honorable war” almost being a real thing.
    Especially when you go home and your pastor casts Detect Evil.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. The Thirty Years War is an excellent example of the kind of devastating ravaging a region suffers, when foraging/pillaging is standard procedure/the only practical option for supplying armies on campaign/the march.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And in the end, there wasn’t even a true clear victor, though for the most part it could be said Austria lost. Both sides had exhausted their financial resources, and there was no way to support significant numbers of troops in the field. Whatever was left of the smaller cities, towns, villages, etc were in constant vicious struggle for survival versus the various roving, ragged, bands of combatants who had no patrons to support them. There were two cities for main combatant factions, Münster, and Osnabrück, in Westphalia, between which parties were negotiating peace. All the while, fighting continued in various strategic regions, as individual power players sought to gain advantage… Negotiations started in 1642, but the peace agreements that covered the Germanies weren’t final until October 1648.

        Fighting between belligerents was far from over, in other regions of Europe, or various colonies…

        The whole thing is just one damn mess, and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics was only part (maybe not even the most significant) of the drivers of the conflict.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. If you want an example of the kind of things done during the Thirty Years War to the population by hostile forces for interrogation purposes, the Swedish Drink ( comes to mind. It was done to force people to reveal hidden food supplies or coerce certain activities, to put it semi-politely.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The “Hells Gate” series by David Weber (all books), Linda Evans (1st & 2nd books), and Joelle Presby (3rd, so far), posits a ‘verse where large scale circular portals of varying size (measured in kilometers/miles, often) have begun appearing that connect alternate “virgin” Earths, with no indigenous humans. Aside from the two Alternate Earth civilizations that the reader gets to know, who, unbeknownst to each other initially, are at opposite ends of the thus far respectively explored world chains.

    Each world is practically the same Earth geographically, aside from localized changes in features, caused by landslides, floods, eruptions, etc. Because we don’t have world maps detailing the changes, it becomes something of a game to match the alternate descriptions of where in the world each civilization’s nations and factions are situated, by comparing our world’s regional climates, and known geographic details. This also goes for where the portals are situated/oriented, as the narrative takes us up and down the portal chains.

    Portals are 2D, always circular, and of varying diameter, but are not aligned in any particular way to one another between worlds. In other words, if on one world the portal is oriented, say, North-South, on the connected world it migh be East-West. Also, the respective circular section seen above ground level from one world to another also varies. This leads to such things like a portal that is almost choked off with bedrock, requiring a massive amount of mining to make passage possible. Portals can be in the ocean, or intersect other bodies of water; Altitude and weather patterns, water currents, can and do cause water and atmosphere to be exchanged through portals.

    Thus far, I don’t recall seeing any “catastrophic/disaster” scale consequences resulting from a portal forming “onscreen”, but references have been made for where atmospheric pressure has blasted topsoil away. Potentially, as an example, a portal could form in such a way, that Death Valley ends up connected to the Indian Ocean, and flooding.

    Since each Earth in the chains are geographically and geologically “identical” in general, each Civilization knows in broad strokes where the resources that they respectively have discovered and developed on their own homeworld are, be it agricultural, minerals, forrestry, etc. Both civs have mass transport/cargo options for land, rivers, and seas, so exploration, development/exploitation becomes a matter of figuring out where in the world a portal is when people emerge on the other side, where a potential further connecting/down-chain portal is situated geographically on the the local world, where the most advantageous areas for colonization/exploitation are respective to the portal, and how to connect them all with transport routes/infrastructure.

    All geographical references in the narrative are made by characters respective to each civs own frame of reference, which can make it a puzzle…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. maps can also be highly prized, or politically sensitive. I remember a Russian refugee telling me that they couldn’t get maps back there. Geographical information was considered military and secret. I later saw confirmation of that in books (titles long gone from memory, however). Still, that’s another angle on mapping. Which might explain some of what I’ve read about some historical merchant records of how they get where they need to go. nothing that looks like what we would call a map, but more notes of landmarks and distances.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I just found out that ancient Chinese compasses used lodestones, and lodestones don’t point North. They point South. So what happens when a character refers a full load out of survival gear, knows about the map, but not the compass? Imagine doing all of the orienteering correctly and still being lost! (I, who cannot orient a compass to save my soul, chirp in delight.)

    Liked by 1 person

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