Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
zette@sff.net

Global Mapping the Non-Tech Way

By Valerie Comer
2004, Valerie Comer


In this high-tech world, how are we non-tech people to survive?  I don't imagine that there are too many serious writers left who are not intimately familiar with their computer's word processing program, but really, there are now programs -- and gadgets -- for everything.  Are they all necessary?

Occasionally a writer needs a specific tool, but lacks the time, inclination, or finances to master a new program.  I found myself in this position while trying to plot a new novel. Please understand that, although I write soft science fiction, my interest is more in futuristic people than their technology.  I can barely manage the technology of my own time.

I searched the internet for planet generating programs, but they required me to choose variables whose definitions I could not grasp, and didn't really care about.  Science and math classes, never my strong suit, now sit thirty years in my past.  My brain balked at the insurmountable wall before it.  There must be an easier way, I thought.

There is. 

I can practically hear you comment, "If you want a non-technical map so badly, why not just draw one on a piece of paper?"  Paper maps work great for towns and small territories, but for something that is spherical, a paper map harbors great distortion.  Also, it is difficult to get a feel for exactly what other country is completely across the globe from your location.  In Canada, when someone digs a deep hole, we say he or she is digging a hole "halfway to China."  If your characters were to dig a hole through their world, where would they land up?

Enter the lowly plastic ball.

The perfect solution is about eight inches in diameter and is sold for a buck or two at toy departments everywhere.  It comes conveniently equipped with an equator and two poles.  I like the blue one with the swirly white pattern, which reminds me of photos of Earth taken from space.

The other tools you will need are equally technical: a flexible tape measure (raid a sewing kit for a great model), a soft pencil, an eraser, a fine point permanent marker, and a calculator.  Oh, yes, and some very basic mathematical formulas that I will walk you through.  Remember me?  If I can figure this out, you can do it in a fraction the time!  This will not make your eyes glaze over.

First, measure the equator of your ball to find the circumference, the distance all the way around.  Mine was 24.5 inches.  I wanted to know the surface area of my ball, so I could figure out how many miles each inch would represent, to enable me to calculate distances.  Earth, for example, has a circumference of about 24,900 miles.  If I wanted my ball to represent Earth, each inch would represent about a thousand miles.

To find the surface area, you first need the radius, which can be calculated from the circumference, which we've already measured.   The radius is the distance from the absolute center of the sphere to anywhere on the outside edge.  Remember pi?  It is the number that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.  We're not looking for fine detail here; pi to the second decimal place is plenty, thus pi equals 3.14.  The formula to find the radius is: circumference divided by pi divided by two.  Thus, 24.5 (the circumference of my ball, remember?) divided by 3.14 divided by 2 equals 3.9.  3.9 inches is the radius of my ball.

On to discovering the surface area, and of course there is a formula for that as well: 4 times pi times radius squared.  My radius squared is 3.9 x 3.9, which equals 15.21.  Therefore: 4 times 3.14 times 15.21 equals 191.  My ball has 191 square inches on it.

If every square inch represents a square mile, it is a pretty darn small world.  If you want the inch to represent two linear miles, remember that an inch squared would give you four square miles.  If you want the inch to represent three linear miles, remember that an inch squared would give you nine square miles.  Four would be sixteen, et cetera.  You can make this children's ball represent a globe of virtually any dimension.  Clearly mark your scale someplace where you will not have to search for it. 1"=? miles (or kilometers, if you prefer).

Now that you have figured out how many square miles your ball represents, you can place your continents and islands.  How big are they?  How close are they to the equator?  How much area do you want to cover with land?  (Earth is nearly 30% land and 70% sea.)  Which end is your north pole?  Sketch the details with a soft pencil, and when you like them, draw them on with a fine-line permanent felt marker.  Add your large lakes and main rivers with a blue marker.  The pencil marks will easily erase.

Even though your marker is labeled 'permanent', it may smudge slightly should you wipe across the lines with a damp cloth.  To keep the markings crisp, you may wish to spray your globe with a clear sealing finish.

Enjoy your world!  Having it perched on your desk or hanging above it will give you a great visual aid and inspiration for your writing project.