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Mapping Stardark

My previous blog was also about (fantasy) maps. That post has a lot of information that can help you with drawing them, but this time I will talk about the maps I have drawn for Stardark/Sterrenduister. Spoiler alert: Stardark doesn't really have a standard fantasy map... And can you even call it fantasy?


Goal of the map

The map should clarify the story for the reader. Despite the characters covering quite a few kilometres, Stardark is not a travel story. Only a handful of cities are mentioned by name, and you don't go much further than two countries. That's why I never drew a map of Stardark, not even for myself as a reminder. It simply wasn't necessary.


So what else needed to be mapped then? Well, the name says it all: the stars. In the story, the stars disappear one by one, so star names or constellations pop up regularly. The story can be understood perfectly fine without a map of the night sky, but I think it gives the reader a better understanding if you do have a star chart.


In addition, there's something else going on... The starry sky in Stardark is identical to ours. Same constellations. Same star names. But the world beneath the characters' feet doesn't resemble the Earth's surface. That's strange because you want everything in your world to fit together. Either you make everything up completely, or you don't. Right?


Yes... But I had a second objective. Since Stardark's starry sky is the same as ours, the corresponding star maps can be used to study our own night sky. If there are people who think, "Oh, let me have a real-life look at this Rigel that was mentioned in the first chapter," then I have succeeded. We should look up at the sky more often. The disappearance of the stars is happening just as much in our world as in the world of Isra and Haider, my main characters. They don't know the cause, of their problem, but we do know ours: light pollution. The website of Ruimteschip Aarde (NL) explains it quite well.


Of all the human-caused problems plaguing our world, this one is less urgent, but still... I find it sad that in so many places in the Netherlands, only a handful of stars are visible. Besides the fact that a night sky filled with stars is incredibly beautiful, it is also our connection to the universe and makes us realize how small we actually are. During a holiday in New Zealand, I saw the Milky Way reflected in the car's bonnet. Such a view leaves quite an impact. Darkness is worth cherishing, and if readers also realize this, I'll be a happy person.


Drawing Maps

An additional advantage of using an existing night sky is that the data already exists too. I don't have to come up with my own celestial bodies or figure out when they are visible. There are websites like in-the-sky.org or apps like Stellarium that can generate maps of the night sky, but I wanted to make something of my own. The data I used, can be downloaded here. That data contains coordinates, but it needs a special program to do something with that...


Enter QGIS! That's a program that understands geographic data and can transform it into modern maps. And not entirely unimportant: it's free. However, the learning curve is quite steep, and I really can't explain how the program works in just a single blog post, so for now, I'll stick to images. The downloaded data looked something like this:



That blue swirl is the Milky Way, the dots are stars, and the lines represent constellations. This is far from readable, let alone pretty to look at. Luckily, with QGIS, you can adjust the colors. I have changed it to grayscale because the map must be printed in black and white.


Moreover, this dataset contains quite a bit of information that is not immediately visible, such as the brightness of the stars and their names. You can also display this data on the map, or you can use it to make brighter stars larger. That makes the map much more user-friendly.



The next step: projection. "What is that?" you might ask. Well, the Earth is round. A projection of the night sky, as seen from Earth, is also round. And what isn't round? Right, a map. That's why distortions occur. With maps of cities or small countries, this distortion is somewhat manageable, but when it comes to representing an entire planet (or the night sky), problems arise. You've probably noticed how poorly Antarctica is depicted on many maps. This is the reason. We'll just have to accept drawing errors will be there.


Projections are different methods to represent a round object on a flat surface, and each method has its own distortions. Have a funny little overview here. For the map with the blue swirl, I'm using the Mercator projection, which is commonly used for world maps. In the center of such a map, everything looks fine, but near the poles, everything gets enlarged and stretched. As each projection has its own strengths and weaknesses, it's up to the cartographer to choose a projection that best suits the information on the map.


Star maps usually don't use the Mercator projection, but a polar one. It looks like this:



Normally, I grumble about the lack of north arrows and scale bars on most fantasy maps, but in this case, it's understandable that they are absent: after all, the north is the center of the map, and distances are not equal. To get a sense of distance, I used a graticule.


The map is nearly complete! It only needs a beautiful border featuring the axes of the graticule. Usually, this wouldn't be a problem - QGIS is, after all, designed for map-making - but I encountered a challenge. QGIS can only create rectangular maps, not circular ones. There are some tricks to work around the issue, but they weren't helping me. I was genuinely surprised (and I still am) that something that seemed so straightforward posed such a problem.


Photoshop

Thus, I had no choice but to tinker in Photoshop. Admittedly, Illustrator is better for drawing precise lines, but I'm more proficient with Photoshop. Moreover, I needed that program anyway to further embellish the maps. The maps I've created are, in fact, owned by Isra, and she has casually scribbled on them.


So after a considerable number of hours, this is the end result - or rather, one of the end results. The maps below are meant to end up in my book, but I also created larger star maps to hand out as prints.



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