Friday, May 16, 2014

Tutorial: How to make your own fictional city using Google Maps!

So a few weeks ago, I discovered that you can use Google Maps to draw on existing cities and make custom maps of your fictional locations. Needless to say, I was EXTREMELY EXCITED. Being an author practically guarantees you will struggle with real life details like travel distance at some point in your book. If you're writing about a real city, the bar is even higher. Even if you're writing about your own city, a map can be a life saver just for keeping everything straight in your head.

For years now, I've had to draw those maps by hand, and let me just say: a cartographer I am not. Enter Google Maps. Let's say you're writing a story set in London. Going to Google Maps to look up a street map is obvious, but Google has given us tools to take that even further, allowing authors to draw new boundaries, set landmarks, and make notes right on a custom map that you can save! And best of all, it's free!! (Well, okay, there is a paid version that has more features, but for our purposes, the free version works perfectly well).

All that said, the Google Maps customization interface isn't exactly user friendly. Most people don't even know it exists (I found it by accident). This a crime! Something this useful should be known by all! Lots of people on Twitter agreed with me. So, by popular request, here is my guide to using Google Maps for world building.

WARNING! Lots of big pictures incoming!


Start by going to Google Maps and clicking on the gear in the lower right corner.

Select "My Places."

This will take you to the custom maps interface. When you save your maps, they'll appear in the list on the left hand side (as you see, I have one saved called DFZ). For now, though, we're going to make a new map, so click on the red "Create Map" button.

Congratulations! You are now in the Custom Map interface!!

You can name your map whatever you want by clicking where it says "Untitled Map" in the upper left. Also, your custom map will start at the furthest zoom possible, you go ahead and type in your desired location in the search bar. Since my new novel, Nice Dragons Finish Last (out in July!) is set in a future version of Detroit, I'm going to make my map there, but you can start anywhere you like.

Note: if your book is set in a completely made up place/fantasy kingdom, you can still use Google to make a useful map. Simply find somewhere in the real world that's roughly the shape/size you want (the British Isles, for example, or Japan) and start making it your own.

Okay, so now that we've got our map, it's time to start doodling on it! On to Step 2!


Just like Photoshop, the custom maps editor works in layers. If you got your map to a specific location by typing a place into the search bar, Google will have automatically generated a layer and a location point for you. I typed in Detroit, and as you see, I now have a "Detroit, MI, United States" location and a green indicator.

Don't you hate it when programs try to fill things in for you? Fortunately, map objects are very easy to create and delete. Everything is controlled from the box in the upper left, which I've marked up for you below.

The "Add Layer" button (red circle) does exactly what you'd think, it adds layers! Note that you only get 3 layers in the free version, so don't be afraid to load them up (more on how to do that in the next step.)

In green, you'll see the point Google added automatically. I don't want that nonsense, so I'll click the X (circled in green) to delete it. In addition to this initial location, there's also an Untitled Layer that generates automatically with every new nap. You can click the name (circled in blue) to rename this layer to whatever you want or click the little downwards arrow beneath it to delete the layer all together. You can also click the check box beside the layer name to toggle whether the layer is visible or not (very useful if you've got overlapping elements of your map and you want to work on one at a time).

Now, below this layer, you'll see an option to Import. If, for some reason, you have a list of specific addresses you want to appear on your map, you can put them in spreadsheet and upload all of them directly to your map in one go. That's pretty cool, but I've never needed to do that, so we'll just not mess with this feature for now.

Finally, at the very bottom of your list, you'll see the Base Map. You can always click on this to get back to the original Google Map below your layers. Also, see the box circled in pink? You can click that to toggle different map views. You can see your map as a satellite image, or a terrain map with elevations, or even just as landmasses (very useful if you don't want roads all over your map.) This is the COOLEST option! You can change your map view whenever you want at any point, and I highly suggest trying out a bunch of options to get several different looks at your chosen setting.

That's pretty much it for the layers, so it's time for Step 3. Pick a layer you want to work on, give it a name, and let's start drawing!


Time for the fun part! For this part of the tutorial, I'm going to use the map I made for my new novel Nice Dragons Finish Last! In this book, Detroit was washed under by a giant flood caused by events surrounding the return of magic. Now, the city and its major suburbs are an independent territory of the US called the DFZ, as illustrated below.

Tada! How did I draw this boundary? Easy, you see those boxes below the search bar? If you click on the one that has lines and dots (the fifth from the left), you'll get the polygon tool. This can be used to draw shapes all over your map. Simply click the button to select the tool (your mouse cursor will turn into a cross when it's active) and click the map wherever you want the first point on your boundary to be. After that, you'll have a line following your mouse. Click the map again to make another point and then another until you have the shape you want. If you accidentally set down a point you don't want, you can just click on it again to remove it. To finish your new shape, simply close the shape by clicking on your first dot again.

Once you've closed the shape, Google will ask you to give it a name. You can also add a description if you want. When you're done, click Save and voila! Your new area is done! You should now see your new shape under its appropriate layer in your menu box. (As you see in the screenshot above, I named mine DFZ OFFICIAL BOUNDARY).

Now, this is where things get REALLY COOL. Once you've finished your shape, click on it again to bring up its details.

See? Google automatically measured the area and border length of my selection (red arrows in the middle of the screen). HOW COOL IS THAT?! I can also change the color by clicking on the area's name in the left hand menu box and then clicking on the paint bucket that will appear to the right. 

(Note, see the little Style, Data, and Labels buttons right under the layer name? Those apply to all the objects in that layer, letting you change everything at once if you want. That's cool, but a bit too hardcore for what we're trying to do. You can always change an object's color/name/details by just clicking on its name.)

Okay, so that's how you draw in a big area. What if you just want a single point?

To add a specific location, just click the Location button (to the left of the polygon tool, indicated by the red arrow above) and click where you want it on the map. Alternatively, you can enter an address or intersection in the search bar, and Google will place the marker for you. Once the location is set, you can edit it.change its colors it just like you did with your big areas above. 

You can also change the shape of the indicator for easy grouping. Here, I have all the important locations from Nice Dragons Finish Last marked with pink stars (don't worry, no spoilers!), while locations from the second book in the series are shown as yellow diamonds (again, no spoilers). This lets me easily see how the travel in the books overlaps and where my characters are in the larger scheme of the setting. Cool, huh?

So, that's how you draw on your map! You can add up to 100 locations and areas for free to each layer, which is a LOT. More than enough than most books will ever need. Now, as you can see from the screenshot above, I've actually kept my other layers hidden for simplicity's sake. But what does my custom map look like when everything's marked?


Here is my complete DFZ map as it looks today. I had to zoom out to fit it all in one screenshot, but I can zoom all the way down to the street level if I want and walk around the city using Google Street View. Or, I can zoom all the way out and look at my city on a national scale. I can see all the layers together to see how everything fits, or I can look at them one at a time. I can see how my borders line up with the topography by turning on the terrain map, or I can put it on satellite view to literally see my city from the sky.

All of this is very very useful when you're an author. You can see in a glance how everything in your world fits together spatially. For my money, though, the most important tools of all are right here.

The red arrow is the Ruler, and it allows you to measure distances between points right on your map. But of course, these directions are as the crow flies. If you want to know how long it would take your protagonist to drive from one point to another on the existing roads, you just click on your starting location and click the Directions box (green arrow). Note that this option will only work if you have at least 1 layer free to hold the directions. If you do, though, clicking on the directions box will create a new "Directions Layer" that looks exactly like the Google Maps driving directions we're all used to. Simply click to fill in your destination, and Google will not only map out your route and give you a distance, it'll also tell you how long it will take to actually travel it via foot/car/bus/bike/subway/whatever option you pick!


Okay, so I know I seem perhaps a little too excited about this, but you have to understand how long I've spent calculating character travel distances by hand. To just be able to let Google do it for me blows my mind. Now, of course, Google Maps is most useful for authors writing in the real world, but let me tell you, I would have found a place to be the Eli world and made a map if I'd had this back when I was writing.

Long story short: if you're writing a book and you need a map (which is kind of redundant in my mind), Google Maps is a super powerful tool and I can not recommend it enough. I hope this tutorial helps you overcome some of the weirder interface issues and recreate the world of your books in a real and useful way. If any of this doesn't make sense, or if you see anything I've left out, please let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for reading, and happy map making!!



Nick Green said...

Fantastic. This feature will come in very handy when I take over your puny planet for the glory of Brarptoast.

Anonymous said...

This is SO COOL!!! Thank you!!


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

This is unbelievably cool. I use Google maps early and often when writing in the "real world", so to be able to make my own? Simply stunning.

Conveniently, I also have a novel (....that I'm putting off editing...) which takes place in Detroit, so that might be my "pilot" map. Landmarks, anyway, I don't change the face of it so much ;)

LycoRogue said...

I was just commenting on how I want to get more in to world-building. And I too am no cartographer. I have about 15 print-outs of maps and how rivers flow/mountains form/etc in order to make my own world feel more "real".

I've spent YEARS working on my world, and I think this is a FANTASTIC shortcut! Thanks for pointing it out. I'm sharing this with everyone!

S.C. Warin said...

Wow, thanks for this! I've been using Google maps a lot for my current book, especially for measuring distances, and did not know I could do this. It is the answer to all my problems. ALL of them.

Also, as a greater-Detroit dweller, I am very excited about your next book taking place there! It'll be interesting to see what you imagine for Future Detroit.

Nathan Hawks said...

I approve this message.

SpaceBadger said...

Trying to figure out how to remove roads, towns, etc and just leave a relief map. Anybody have this figured out already?

Mel Corbett said...

This is awesome. I have several stories that take place in versions of our world (one that takes place in ten years after all tech just stops working, that I started long before revolution came out, and one that takes place in our world with paranormal beings), this is a great tool for keeping track of where things are.

jane pinckard said...

<3 for this!!

Anonymous said...

Can you rename streets and towns using this?

Anonymous said...


Booky said...

Now I can SEE the war between the Moguls, the Religious Nations and the Governs!

Natalie Westgate said...

I'm so glad I found this post! I had planned to print off some maps and use tracing paper to get this effect, but Google Maps to the rescue :D

Michael Wendt said...

Is there an easy way to save a current map displayed as an image?.. I think I'm going to use this to make some modern zombe rpg maps... but I need to be able to pull the image out and save it as displayed at any given moment.

Anonymous said...

You're a life saver :-) thanks. I'm so going to use this.

Hannah Lund said...

Hi Rachel - Love your posts, am using them as a life-saving, steadying guide for my own writing.

I'm from Denmark, and your directions didn't work for "My Places" when I clicked the gear. So obviously I tried to find out why.

Don't know if this is because I'm not located in the US - or because I've never created a map before. Anyway, I needed to login to Google, then click the empty search field...and the My Maps came up below my recent searches.

Sharing, in case anyone else non-US had similar issues with this great feature! :-) Hannah

Mari Rose said...

THis is awesome! I have written a few crime novels and this will come in handy when showing where the crimes scenes took place etc.

Pamela Clare said...

I'm trying to do this and was SO excited, but I never get a gear in the lower right corner or anywhere, regardless of the browser. Any tips? I just keep getting Denver, no matter how many times I type in just Google maps' URL. UG!

Jae Baeli said...

Pamela Clare--you have to click the menu icon on upper left--they updated google maps since this post.

Jae Baeli said...

I would love to know the answer to a previous question--can you replace the streetnames (and other text) on the map? I need to rename the streets. That would be very helpful to me, since I want to use it for a fictional town i created in one of my series. Thanks for this tutorial, though. I was using my maps in google to move characters around and such in a REAL place, but now i need to create one for my fictional town. :)

Lara-Ashley said...

Once you go to the menu in upper left, what do you click on? I can't find anyway to edit the maps anymore. If i try to add a new business it is sent for review by google. this sounds like an amazing tip. would love some more help!