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.

20 comments:

  1. Visio has a floorplan template along with its other mapping tools.

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion! I'll look into it.

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  2. Hmm...that's certainly interesting. I'm not sure if I will remember to do this, but I'll try to try it.

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  3. I never thought to try using Excel for that. I usually just doodle on a sheet of blank paper for large scale and graph paper for small scale. That could be fun to try. I haven't tried mapping out the spaceship in my SF story yet. I'm thinking I may have some combat take place on board, not just the training stuff the MC and her new friend have done so far. Having the ship mapped could be helpful.

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    1. I had been struggling with pencil and paper, so that's why I tried this. It was also good that I knew the place had a rectangular floor plan! I can't tell you how much it has helped to know precisely where everything is.

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  4. There's currently a war in my crit group over whether or not one should use graph paper to draw maps of your worlds. The one camp finds it very easy to work out distances between points and relative directions if there's a nice grid to everything. The other camp feels the result is inorganic worlds where everything lines up in a neat, straight line, because of the author's tendency to follow the grid while laying out items. I think the Excel method runs the risk of accentuating the latter problem. That said, I think any tool has limitations, and if you're aware of them, you can overcome them. I'm going to have to try your approach and see if I like it.

    Thanks!

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    1. Kyle, that's a good point. There is an unconscious bias in using a grid toward lining things up on it, even when you wouldn't normally. Since I was doing the inside of a grid-based house, Excel turned out to be just what I needed.

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  5. That's brilliant! I would never have thought of Excel for mapping. I can't wait to try it.

    You mentioned having a bit of trouble imagining room layouts. If you are looking for something to help you map out building layouts or rooms, you might want to try floorplanner.com. I used it to map out a plan for how a warehouse would be laid out in my story. It didn't take too much to figure out how to use it, and it helped a lot.

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    1. Thanks, Monica! I appreciate the suggestion, too.

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  6. Interesting :). I love Excel, and have used it for mapping, but never thought to make it into a grid sheet. I also use ConceptDraw 7. It's designed, among other things, for doing interior design, so comes with a grid and preset objects as well as shapes that you can place and move around.

    Actually, the last time I used it was to figure out how to make a smoking jacket out of a piece of cloth I randomly had. Had to fit the pieces together just so :).

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    1. Margaret, thanks for the recommendation! I'll have to look at that one.

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  7. Interesting. I never would have thought of using Excel. I do all my maps and floorplans in GIMP, although that does have a fairly steep learning curve.

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    1. Thanks, and thanks for your recommendation!

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  8. This sounds really useful. Thanks!

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  9. I never thought of this technique before...

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  10. What a great tool! I typically make geographical maps for whatever I'm working on, but I'd never considered making building blueprints... nor had I considered using Excel for writing purposes. :)

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    1. Andrea, thanks for your comment! This was a special circumstance in which the blueprint was very very necessary.

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