How to Make a Custom Map for Historical Fiction

Writing a historical fiction setting is just as much about place as it is about time. Now, when I think about place, I tend to veer to the nonphysical sense of place, i.e. education, socioeconomic standing, religious beliefs, etc. This is because I’m a character-driven writer. Any physical sense of place, i.e. geography, landscape, and weather, is introduced and honed in the second drafts of my work. To help me focus on physical place, I create a custom map via Google My Maps.

Screenshot of my custom map on Google My Maps

About six years ago, I was all about using Google Earth to research a setting in a far off location. In my case, that far off location was Compton Beauchamp in England and my work-in-progress was Haunting Miss Trentwood. Google Earth is still a great tool, but for this work-in-progress, I live in the city that I’m writing about. So it’s not that I can’t imagine the forest for the trees… It’s that I’m a terrible judge of distance because, well, I drive a car everywhere. And, most of the buildings and roads of my characters’ time period don’t exist anymore.

As I’m piecing together information from my historical research, I turn to Google My Maps. This product is a special version of Google Maps where you can create your own custom landmarks and diagrams. I’ll walk you through the steps I took to create one for my current work-in-progress.

You will need a Google account to follow this tutorial.

Create a New Custom Map

  1. Go to Google My Maps.
  2. Click the big button that says “Create A New Map.”
  3. Give your map a name by clicking “Untitled Map.”

Since I haven’t titled my book yet, I decided to give the map a generic name. One day, when this book actually has a title, I’ll name the map the same as the book.

Customize Your Custom Map Cartography

Maybe for your book, waterways are more important than walk and roadways. You can change what the map looks like (and therefore what it highlights) by changing the display.

  1. Clicking the “Base Map” down arrow.
  2. Hover your mouse to see what makes the nine map views different: Map, Satellite, Terrain, Light Political, Mono City, Simple Atlas, Light Landmass, Dark Landmass, Whitewater.

Custom map cartography

Add Locations to Your Custom Map

  1. Click the location pin (or marker). This is the tool next to the hand shape.
  2. Click the desired location of the pin on your map.
  3. Give the location a name and description.
  4. Click the camera icon to include links to images. This will create a mini-gallery of images that you feel pertain to your location.

I’m pretty sure the map geolocates to the country you’re in based on IP address. At least, whenever I start a new map, it always begins with the United States and I have to zoom down to my desired location. Don’t worry, once you drop location pins on your map, it will center automatically on your locations henceforth.

Belinda's custom map tools

Add Shapes to Your Custom Map

  1. Click the Funky circles and lines icon.
  2. Click the first point to define the perimeter of your shape.
  3. Continue clicking locations to define your shape until you return to your original point.
  4. Define a color to help highlight the shape against your map.

This feature is invaluable for playing digital archeologist. For instance, Camp Chase in Columbus, OH no longer exists. The entire structure was torn down by July 1865. However, we do have maps and descriptions of where the camp was located, and where the prison and Confederate cemetery were located relatively. As you can see in my example map at the beginning of this article, I defined the camp outline and the prison shape.

Group Your Locations and Shapes into Layers

Since I’m character-driven and for this story it just makes sense, I named the layers after the main characters. For you, it might be something different. The nice thing about the layers is you can turn them on/off to focus on a particular view of the map while writing. If you add a location to the “wrong” layer, just drag and drop the icon from one layer to the other via that left menu.

And you’re done! I’d love to see your maps if you create them. If you have problems, let me know and I’ll try to help troubleshoot! I know I have a lot of fun creating maps, especially since I’m such a visual thinker.