A detailed image of Pietro Vesconte’s world map

Why Early Cartography Doesn’t Work Well for Fantasy Maps

I got message in my inbox the other daaaaay…

“I’d love to see something from the Late Medieval or even Crusades period. Does the dearth of material from those eras prevent or make such a project more difficult? Are you simply uninterested?”

It’s a great question and one I’ve received several times in the last few years. The answer is longer and more complicated than it should be. We’re dealing with history and history is always messier than we’d like. Plus, I think it’s interesting enough that everyone will appreciate why I seem to ignore the Middle Ages’ maps in favor of later sources.

Also I blame Tolkien.

Strap in, cowpokes—I’m going history nerd on y’all.

Technology, Cartography, and Fan Expectations

We need to begin with technology. The proliferation of maps didn’t commence until after the printing press became ubiquitous. That’s why we have such an explosion of content after the 15th century. Before then, maps were all hand-made. Reproduction was difficult. You don’t find as many maps from those early eras, and often the maps you do find are reproductions done in a later style. That’s not to say they don’t exist, they’re just much different than the maps that came later, and they don’t correlate with what we think of as a map.

Then there’s the fan experience and the modern fan’s expectation. Fantasy maps serve a story, after all, and most fans want certain things from the map. Locations, distance, landforms, perhaps even enough to understand the climate. But the era of your typical fantasy novel is often set much earlier than the era of the printing press. (Yeah. Sure. It’s fantasy. And yeah, sure, you can fudge it.) But this is where it gets complicated.

In many ways, Tolkien is the one who set the expectation for fantasy fans. His famous map of Middle Earth, the one we all know and love, is more akin to cartography from the 16th, 17th, or 18th century than one from the Middle Ages. While it’s easy to point fingers, the reality is there is a good reason for his decision.

The art from the Middle Ages was weird.

Have you ever spent time looking at Western art from the Middle Ages at a museum? Notice how it’s always a little goofy? A bit off? Strange angles. Weird faces. There’s a flatness to everything. Eyes are looking in different directions. The artist had no idea what a cat looked like. The baby Jesus on Mary’s lap looks like a 34-year-old man. Camels look like horses and horses like goats. Trees are rendered oddly, and buildings are even odder. Art at this time was in its infancy and it’s like that with the cartography as well.

Let’s look at a few examples to see what I mean.


10th Century – Ende’s Map of the World – 975 A.D.

Most Western cartographers from the Middle Ages were monks, or in Ende’s case, a nun. The maps they made were often crafted alongside, or as a part of, “illumination” for religious manuscripts. Religious zeal tended to dominate many of those early Western works, making them almost useless as maps.

This “map of the world” is an excellent example of that fervor. It’s sparse, with more effort spent on the Garden of Eden cartouche than detailing the geography. It’s far different from the detailed maps we expect from our modern fantasy novels. Yet, the era it was created, the late 10th-century, is more often than not closer in era to our crafted fantasy worlds.


12th Century – Al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana – 1154 A.D.

During the 10th century, most of the progression in the science of geography and cartography was coming from the Middle East. Most of our modern understanding of mathematics and science is rooted in discoveries from the early Muslim world. Cartography is no different.

Muhammad al-Idrisi’s Tabula Rogeriana is one of my favorite pieces from those times and is largely considered the height of early Muslim cartography. While this work is rendered upside down, with North being at the bottom (not uncommon for Middle Ages work), the map itself is incredibly accurate—while scale is still being sussed out, it’s easy to spot recognizable landforms.

It’s also stunning.

Colorful mountain ranges dance across beige landforms, green lakes and seas drain into rivers, which in turn empty into the deep blue swaths of open ocean. It makes for a beautiful piece of history. While you can see the roots for the hill-profile style that would become the norm in later centuries, it’s quite different from maps we find in the opening pages of a novel. Everything here is a bit flashy, more like a painting—whereas, with later maps, engravers began using the symbols we expect. The map itself shifted in later years to become a tool for the commoner, not a piece of art for a fancy king named Roger.


13th Century – Matthew Paris’s Britain – 1259-ish A.D.

The other approach we find in the Middle Ages was more typographical. Take this 13th-century map of the British Isles from the Benedictine Monk Matthew Paris. It’s not bogged down in religious fervor the way Ende’s map was—but it’s also not as detailed as one would expect.

There are only a few signs and symbols, and much of the heavy lifting is done with text. Beyond the coastline, there is very little in the way of landforms. No flora is present. No mountains—well, maybe one mountain. Few rivers. And this is the 13th Century! We’re nearly three hundred years after Ende crafted her map, and still two hundred years before duel-beard wielding Johannes Gutenberg would invent his printing press. And etching—the process that rendered many of the maps that influence fantasy cartography today—wouldn’t show up on the scene until seventy-five years after that.

But you can see the origins of what was to come. You can see symbols begin to creep into the idea of a map. You can see where cartography is going.


I once read an article that compared these early maps to “storytelling” rather than representations of geography. This was undoubtedly the case in Western cartography during the Middle Ages. These maps serve to enforce a narrative. But beyond that narrative, most are unusable. They’re paintings. Piece of art. They’re not tools. We see more cartouches and illustrations than useful signs and representational symbols. This is why I avoid using these as a base. There aren’t enough signs to make a robust set, and the signs and symbols that exist are very limited. This is why early cartography and Middle Ages’ sources won’t make practical brush sets.

The Silver Lining

I don’t think all hope is lost. While it’s theorized to be a bit earlier than the Middle Ages, I think there’s potential for some sort of set to come from the Tabula Peutingeriana, an early map of the Roman Empire.

I’m not sure how effective it’d be from a landform-perspective, but there are so many variances in the Roman settlements that I could see it working for the right project. The trick will be finding a decent source, it’s been reproduced so many times and every time there are slight variations. Plus, I’ll need to dust off my High-School Latin before I tackle it.

There’s also an opportunity with some of Sebastian Münster’s or Girolamo Ruscelli’s work. It’s early as far as the hill-profile style goes, but it somehow feels older even though both are from the 16th century. The downside is most of the individual maps are fairly light in the number of symbols present, so I’ll need to pull from multiple sources. Unfortunately, neither did an outstanding job maintaining a uniform size with their signs or keeping line strokes consistent. Not impossible to overcome, but it is time-consuming.

In Conclusion

There are going to projects that will benefit from the earlier styles of cartography. The maps I shared are stunning and fantastic pieces of history. Creating in-era ephemera can add a level of authenticity to a story, and any of the pieces I shared would be great to replicate for the right project. But for those, I think proper illustration goes a lot further than trying to shoehorn brush sets into cartographic development. In those cases, one would be better off hiring an illustrator.

I design my brushes to help non-designers create period-authentic maps. For the vast majority of fantasy projects, I think mimicking the hill-profile style will satisfy fans. Tolkien chose it for a reason. It’s easy to wrap your head around and still feels properly antiquated even if it doesn’t precisely match era to era. It’s become the defacto fantasy style, and for a fantastical world, and you know what? That’s more than acceptable.


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My Fantasy Map Brushes Have a New Home

Quick update since I’ve been moving stuff around.

When I started #NoBadMaps and began releasing my brush sets, I didn’t expect them to explode in popularity the way they have. (My traffic has tripled in the last year.) As the project has expanded over the last few years, my Free Stuff page has become a bit overwhelmed. It was high time to move my brushes to their own location.

As of today, all my brush sets are now located on the new Fantasy Map Brushes page! I know a lot of sites have linked to my Free Stuff page, so I’ll keep a handy reminder there for a while. You can also access the page via the Free Stuff dropdown in the main navigation. Not much has changed visually or functionally, but I am starting to brainstorm a new way to layout the sets and make it a little easier to find the right brushes for your cartography project.

Continue to enjoy the brush sets! Please share what you create. Send me an email or find me on Twitter or heck, leave a comment below. I adore seeing how these brushes get used.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Get Your Vote On 🗳

It’s not even Election Day yet in the United States, and here I am urging my fellow American citizens to get out and vote. Why? Many reasons! First, this is a critical election. Due to the pandemic and to help spread folks out a bit more many states have opened up early and absentee voting. It’s also becoming clear that there will be a big turnout, so the sooner you cast your vote, the quicker it can be counted.

“We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

Thomas Jefferson

I voted last week. Washington State has been vote-by-mail as long as I’ve lived here as a voting-age adult. It’s an incredible process and one I’ve always appreciated. It’s very secure. It prevents villains from doing scummy things like shutting down or limiting polling places or purging voter rolls. They even have a handy tracker showing you where your vote is in the process. (If your state doesn’t have this, you should ask for it.)

My ballot was counted yesterday (October 22nd!)

Make time to vote. If you don’t or can’t do it early. Then be sure to make time on Election Day. (That’s Tuesday, November 3 this year.) Most states require employers to give you paid time off to head to the polls, and in states that don’t have specific laws, you’ll find that employers will often give you time off. (You can check which states have voting laws at vote411.com.)

I mention this every election, and I will keep mentioning it until I don’t have to anymore: anyone trying to prevent or make it difficult for citizens to vote are the bad guys. As an American citizen, no one has the right to stop you from voting. Your voice deserves to be counted. If you’re in line to vote when the polls close, they are legally required to allow you to vote. If you’re intimidated at polls or have problems voting, keep these numbers handy:

  • 866-Our-Vote (English)
  • 866-Ve-Y-Vota (Spanish)
  • 866-API-Vote (Asian Languages)

Find out more information at 866ourvote.org.

So let’s do our civic duty, submit out ballots, and participate in our electoral process.

Homann: A Free 18th Century Cartography Brush Set for Fantasy Maps

Homann: A Free 18th Century Cartography Brush Set for Fantasy Maps

I’ve been heads down working on the edits for Gleam Upon the Waves, so it’s been a while since I’ve shared any new resources for fantasy map enthusiasts, writers, cartographers, game masters, table-top role-playing game creators—whoever you are. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few things up my sleeve. Today, I’m excited to announce the release of my latest free historically-based fantasy-map brush set, which I’ve named Homann.

Are you a fan of fields? Are defensive fortifications your jam? Then Homann is the perfect set for you. Based on L’Isle de Cadix du Detroit de Gibraltar, a 1788 map of the Strait of Gibraltar, by Johann Baptist Homann, a prolific German geographer, cartographer, and wig haver. (Yeah, click on his name. You’ll see what I mean.) It’s a unique map. One that seems to be at war with itself. It’s reminiscent of a battlefield map at first, but you can see how it’s mixed with the traditional cartography of its time. At the same time, it flirts with being a nautical chart, not something you often find on maps like this. But that jumbled confusion makes sense considering the messy military history surrounding the strait.

A unique map like this means the brush set extracted from it will be just as unique. The settlements are an unusual mix of pictorial illustrations and the traditional profile-style signs more common to cartographic maps of this era. Landforms are present but serve as a secondary backdrop to the strategic fortifications. Interestingly, a lot of effort went into detailing agriculture, and it’s not hard to see the amount of time the engraver spent on fields.

Since completing my Thirteen in Twelve project last year, I’ve been seeking out resources that separate themselves from the thousands of repetitive-looking maps from the 17th and 18th century. With all those quirks I thought Homann would stand apart while still working alongside any of my older sets, and I appreciate its attention to detail. It’s perfect for a wide variety of fantasy projects.

Homann is a medium-sized set of often VERY LARGE signs—some of the cartouches are over a thousand pixels wide—so, yeah… the detail here is fairly intense. With over 400 brushes, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of use in your work. The full set includes the following:

  • 13 Tents
  • 90 Houses
  • 7 Towns
  • 6 Elevated Towns
  • 2 Places of Worship
  • 20 Forts
  • 7 Unique Buildings
  • 45 Fields
  • 5 “Shoreline” Fields (These are less detailed than their cousins and were mostly found along waterways.)
  • 45 Trees
  • 100 Mountains
  • 14 Mountain Pairs (Basically, two mountains close together.)
  • 6 Mountain Ranges
  • 15 Anchorages
  • 2 Battle Markers
  • 5 Map Elements
  • 3 Ships (They’re big.)
  • 16 Sounding Marks
  • 30 Unit Positions/Markers

The button below links to a ZIP file that contains a Photoshop brush set (it’ll also work with GIMP and Affinity Photo) as well as a set of transparent PNGs in case you’re using a program that doesn’t support Adobe brush files. I’ve separated them by type: Settlements and Flora, Landforms, and Cartouches. They’re black and on a transparent background, so they’ll look broken if viewed in Chrome, but trust me, they’re all there.



As with all of my previous brush sets, Homann is free for any use. I distribute my sets with a Creative Common, No Rights Reserved License (CC0), which means you can freely use this and any of my brushes in commercial work and distribute adaptations. (Details on this decision here.) No attribution is required. Easy peasy!

Enjoy Homann? Feel free to show me what you created by sending me an email or finding me on Twitter or heck, leave a comment below. I adore seeing how these brushes get used, and I’d be happy to share your work with my readers (let me know in your message.) Let us see what you make!


🌍 Homann in Use

Want to see this brush set in use? I put together a sample map, and you can see the results below. There are three versions, a black and white version, one colored, and a decorated sample. Click on any of the images below to view them larger. Perhaps this will inspire you as you get started on your own projects!

An example of Homann in use (black and white)
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An example of Homann in use (color)
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An example of Homann in use (decorated)
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💸 Supporting This Work

If you like the Homann brush set (or any of my free brushes, really) and want to support my work, instead of a donation, consider buying one of my cosmic-horror soaked dark urban fantasy novels. The first book—The Stars Were Right—is only $2.99 on eBook. I think you’ll dig it. You can find all my books in stores and online. Visit the Bell Forging Cycle hub to learn more about the series. Tell your friends!

The Bell Forging Cycle

Not interested in my books but still want a way to support me? Buy me a coffee.


🗺 More Map Brushes

Homann isn’t the only brush set I’ve released. You can find other free brush sets with a wide variety of styles over on my Free Stuff page. Every set is free, distributed under a CC0 license, and open for personal or commercial use. I’m sure you’ll be able to find something that works for your project.

Zatta: A Free 18th Century Cartography Brush Set for Fantasy Maps

This extensive hachure-focused set (those are the fuzzy caterpillar mountains) was taken from Antonio Zatta’s 1775 map of southern Portugal. Striding the line between the late-18th and early-19th century this set is perfect for flintlock fantasy, steampunk, or anything similar.

Janssonius: A Free 17th Century Cartography Brush Set

A topographical brush set with a nautical focus based on Johannes Janssonius’ 1650 nautical chart of the Bay of Bengal. Along with the standard symbols of settlements, flora, and landforms, I’ve also made sure to incorporated a whole host of maritime signs—rocks, sounding marks, shallows, and a whole bunch more.

Vischer: A 17th Century Cartography Brush Set

Based on the amazing Archiducatus Austriae inferioris, an incredibly detailed map of lower Austria created by Georg Matthäus Vischer in 1697, this is the largest set I’ve released. Loads of detail and a unique approach to rendering forests and landforms aids this set in standing apart. A perfect set for the right project.

Braun: A Free 16th Century Urban Cartography Brush Set for Fantasy City MapsBraun: A 16th Century Urban Cartography Brush Set

The brushes within this urban-focused set are based on the incredible work of Georg Braun taken from his Civitates orbis terrarum—easily one of the most significant volumes of cartographic antiquity. The detail and density represented in these symbols give an extra layer of texture and is perfect for the right fantastical city map.

Ogilby - DecoratedOgilby: A Free 17th Century Road Atlas Brush Set

Taken from John Ogilby’s 1675 book Britannia, Volume the First, this set allows the creator to recreate road atlas from the 17th century in stunning detail, placing the traveler’s experience front and center. With over 800 brushes, this is my most extensive set to date and useful for a variety of projects. Several bonus downloads are also available, as well.

Van der Aa Sample Map - DecoratedVan der Aa: An 18th Century Cartography Brush Set

This regional map set is based on a map by Dutch cartographer and publisher, Pieter Van der Aa. It’s a beautifully rendered version of the Mingrelia region of northwest Georgia. While not as extensive as other sets, the size of the map allowed for larger brushes that helps highlight the uniqueness of each symbol. It also features a failed wall!

Gomboust: A 17th Century Urban Cartography Brush Set

My first brush set to focus on creating realistic maps for fantastical urban environments! Gomboust is a huge set, and its symbols are extracted from Jacques Gomboust’s beautiful 1652 map of Paris, France. His style is detailed yet quirky, isometric yet off-kilter, packed with intricacies, and it brings a lot of personality to a project.

Harrewyn: An 18th Century Cartography Brush SetHarrewyn: An 18th Century Cartography Brush Set

Based on Eugene Henry Fricx’s “Cartes des Paysbas et des Frontieres de France,” this set leans into its 1727 gothic styling and its focus on the developed rather than the natural. It’s hauntingly familiar yet strikingly different. If you’re looking for more natural elements, Harrewyn works well alongside other sets as well.

Popple: A Free 18th Century Cartography Brush SetPopple: A Free 18th Century Cartography Brush Set

This set has quickly become a favorite, and it’s perfect for a wide variety of projects. The brushes are taken from 1746’s A Map of the British Empire in America by Henry Popple, and it has a fresh style that does a fantastic job capturing the wildness of a frontier. Plus, it has swamps! And we know swamps have become a necessity in fantasy cartography.

Donia: A Free 17th Century Settlement Brush SetDonia: A Free 17th Century Settlement Brush Set

While not my most extensive set (a little over one hundred brushes), Donia boasts one of the more unique takes on settlements from the 17th century. If you’re looking for flora, I suggest checking out other sets, but if you want to pay attention to your map’s cities, towns, castles, churches, towers, forts, even fountains, then this is the right set for you.

Blaeu: A Free 17th Century Cartography Brush SetBlaeu: A Free 17th Century Cartography Brush Set

Based on Joan Blaeu’s Terræ Sanctæ—a 17th-century tourist map of the Holy Land—this set includes a ton of unique and varied signs as well as a large portion of illustrative cartouches that can add a flair authenticity to any fantasy map. Elegant and nuanced, everything works within a system, but nearly every sign is unique.

Aubers: An 18th Century Cartography Brush SetAubers: An 18th Century Cartography Brush Set

An 18th Century brush set based on a map from 1767 detailing the journey of François Pagès, a French naval officer, who accompanied the Spanish Governor of Texas on a lengthy exploration through Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. A unique southwestern set with a few interesting deviations—including three volcanos!

L’Isle: An 18th Century Battlefield Brush SetL’Isle: An 18th Century Battlefield Brush Set

A departure from the norm, this set is based on the Plan Batalii map, which was included in a special edition of The First Atlas of Russia in 1745. A detailed view of a battle during the Russo-Turkish War of 1735–1739. Canon! Units! Battles! Perfect for mapping out the combat scenarios in your fantasy stories.

Widman: A 17th Century Cartography Brush SetWidman: A 17th Century Cartography Brush Set

A 17th Century brush set based on the work of Georgio Widman for Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi’s atlas published in 1692. A fantastic example of Cantelli da Vignola’s influence and a solid set for any fantastic map. This is the workhorse of antique map brush sets—perfect for nearly any setting.

Walser: An 18th Century Cartography Brush SetWalser: An 18th Century Cartography Brush Set

An 18th Century brush set based on the work of Gabriel Walser with a focus on small farms and ruins and a robust set of mountains and hills. This is a great brush set to see how Vignola’s influence persisted across generations. It was etched over 80 years after the Widman set, but you’ll find a few familiar symbols within.

Lumbia: A Sketchy Cartography Brush SetLumbia: A Sketchy Cartography Brush Set

A sketchy style brush set I drew myself that focuses on unique hills and mountains and personal customizability. My attempt at trying to channel the sort of map a barkeep would draw for a band of hearty adventurers. It includes extra-large brushes for extremely high-resolution maps.

Lehmann: A Hatchure Brush SetLehmann: A Hatchure Brush Set

Named after Austrian topographer Johann Georg Lehmann creator of the Lehmann hatching system in 1799, this is a path-focused brush set designed for Adobe Illustrator that attempts to captures the hand-drawn style unique 19th Century hachure-style mountains. This set works perfectly in conjunction with my other sets from the late 18th century.


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Things Are A Bit Different Around Here

Things are a bit different around here

Back in early October, I mentioned that a change was coming. If you’re a regular reader, by now you’ve probably noticed things look quite a bit different. While on vacation last week, I took some time to redesign the site and move some things around. Some of this was to prep for the coming of Gleam Upon the Waves, and some of it was to reduce the amount of time I dealt with random web stuff. So… what’s new? Let me tell you.


New Domain

Well, kinda. There was always a KMAlexander.com, but before it took you to a static page. Now it brings you here. I’ll touch a little more on this in a bit. Since the domain changed, it felt more appropriate to be a little more professional with the title. The form blog title “I Make Stories” is no more. (Don’t worry, I’m still making stories.)


Sub-Domains Are Gone… Mostly

My book sites used to be on separate webpages nestled under subdomains most of those are now gone and only a few remain. (store.kmalexander.com is one.) If you came from thestarswereright.kmalexander.com, chances are you’ll have landed here. This is part of the redirect process and I’m still trying to figure out a solution. But, those webpages still exist. All my books can now found up on the menu. Which brings me to the next part…


New Book Landing Pages

As I mentioned, in the before times, I had different sites for each book, and each of those had subsites. It was a lot to juggle. With this new site, all those have been merged here! You can find them up under the Bell Forging Cycle tab in the menu. They’re a bit cleaner and will look so much better for those folks using mobile devices. Moving to a more mobile-friendly approach was a big consideration for this redesign. You should check ’em out (share them with your friends.) I think they turned out great.


New About Section

I’ve streamlined all the stuff about me. The Appearances and Contact Info pages are now consolidated under the About section. Those pages will continue to get streamlined, but it made more sense to group them together than have them divergent. Also freed up more room in the menu and simplified things a lot more.


A New Home Page

This one is a bit odd. Since, if you come to kmalexander.com, you’ll land here, on the blog. That’s by design since this is the best place to get news and updates, and I’m not one of those authors who only post once a year. The homepage is currently a catch-all page, and it’s modeled after my old homepage. Still feeling this one out. It might eventually go away. I like the idea of the blog being front and center, but I can see an appeal for a homepage focused mostly on books. So, we’ll see how this goes.


New Sidebar & Footer

Juggled a few things around in the sidebar, and I’m still rearranging the footer. Search is now clearer, as is access to the archives. Overall, I think it’s a bit more streamlined. I’ve got plenty of working space, so don’t be surprised if I add some other stuff in that area as well.


So that’s some of the new changes you’ll find around here. Overall I think this is a solid step forward, and it’s nice not to have to fiddle with many different sites whenever I want to make simple changes. Also, being more mobile-friendly doesn’t hurt. What do you think? Leave a comment below and let me know.