One of the things that I often do when I am writing a story is to sketch a map of the area where the story takes place. This helps me to visualise what the characters will be able to see. The thing is though, you can’t just bang down stuff randomly (well you can, but it isn’t realistic – you want your world to be realistic don’t you?)

How settlements form

Typically people build houses where there is shelter from the elements, adequate supplies of food, water and fuel. They also like to build them in easily accessible places for the most part. All villages and towns grow from farmstead, places a farmer, and his family, decided to settle.

However not all of these farmsteads ends up as a village. There are loads of outlying farms in populated countryside, some of them are ancient or at least built on the remains of an ancient farm. What distinguishes those that get bigger?

There’s an element of luck, but mainly it is because they either have an abundance of some resource or they lie along a convenient route. Trade is the reason most of our towns exist. Certainly this is true of the most ancient ones. There exceptions to this, but these tend to be modern capital cities (Washington DC being an example) or new towns intended to displace people from densely populated inner cities (like Milton Keynes, or Cumbernauld).


Look closely at the next handful of villages you drive through. There is a clear difference between an extended farm

English: Corfe Castle Village Square This is t...
English: Corfe Castle Village Square This is taken in the Square, looking west towards the National Trust shop and the war memorial in the centre of the Square. This is now used as a roundabout for the village traffic as well as a seating area for the tourists (as depicted by the photograph)! The National Trust shop is located in the village as the castle is a National Trust property. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

with houses for the labourers and a proper village. Villages tend to have a focal point, usually a green space, but sometimes a market square. Modern villages still have them, there will be an open area possibly with a children’s play area. Around this there will be a Church, possibly a pub, a shop or two and often a war memorial. Even if there isn’t an open area there will be a cluster of the Church (with graveyard), a pub, shop and war memorial. These will be surrounded with houses, perhaps along a single linear road. If there is a second cross road this may also have houses along it. The cross roads (sometimes a Y) will often run on two sides of the Church, or the village green if there is one.

Optional extras, depending on the size of the village

  • village hall (needs about 1,000 residents to be viable);
  • school (needs a couple of hundred kids aged 4-11 within five miles to work);
  • more shops and pub (scale up shops per 200 inhabitants, and pubs per thousand);
  • larger villages have more streets, keeping everything within minimum walking distance.

Of course when you are world building for a story you make the village suit the narrative that you are conveying. It doesn’t really matter if the shops, pubs or anything else is economically viable. If you need an internal rivalry then two pubs might be a way to do it. If you need a football team, or a Women’s Institute then write in the Pavilion and pitch, or the village hall or whatever you need.


A key feature of villages is that typically people know who there neighbours are, and in the smaller more settled ones far outside the commuter belt, the lineages of all the residents. Or at least some of the inhabitants know all of that. This can be a feature for interesting stories. The other thing that happens in these sorts of communities is that the smarter kids leave for university and jobs in the big city. Some of the others join the services (including some of the smart ones) and go away that way. Often they reappear later in life, retired in their forties, or professionally qualified as the local GP, district nurse, solicitor, entrepreneur, mechanic. A good way to bring people in without having to make them complete strangers to the rest of your characters.


English: Wigtown market square gardens. The ga...
English: Wigtown market square gardens. The gardens in the market square with the town hall in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Towns are a whole different order of magnitude different. They don’t scale into villages, there is a sort of multiplier effect with proper towns. Almost every old town that I have looked at, and I do pay attention on my travels, is based around a market, and very often also a river crossing.

Towns tend to be on the nexus of trade routes, and they draw in people from surrounding villages for markets and also specialised trades. As well as being bigger than villages, especially with the tradespeople, they also have a lot more in the way of amenities. There will be a square, with a town hall of some sort on it, and often also a church. In many modern towns the square has been infilled, usually with parades of shops, descended from the market stalls that once stood in the same place.

Like the villages the towns are often formed around a cross roads, this can be two sides of the main square, or sometimes they join at one end of a widened high street and then split out after the shopping area (Reigate in Surrey does this, the A25 and A217 being the primary routes).

Another key feature of a town, other than being astride a trade route, is that it tends to have an abundance of something useful (or it did have in its early days). This could be something simple like weavers in a sheep farming region, or a watermill in an arable area. There ought to be something. This might not matter to your story though and you don’t need to worry about it much. However it could also be useful as a hook, or a clue.

How I draw maps

Firstly I think of the sort of place that I need for my story, and the key locations I need it to have. Once I’ve listed those out I get myself a blank sheet of paper (although I do sometimes use squared paper).

Pencil usually starts with some outline topographical features (which way is uphill, where are the water courses).

Then I put the focus of the village/town on the map, along with some routes. I see this as growing the town organically.

Next down are the key locations I need relative to each other. I then fill in the gaps between them with the other necessary parts of the village/town. i.e. the pubs, shops and civic amenities. If it is a mediaeval walled town then I add these in now as well. If there is a need for industry I also stick that in too.

Lastly I add in some houses for the people to live in, making sure to put the bigger ones upwind of the town (the richer districts of towns/cities tend to be upwind on prevailing winds because the rich folk can afford to build where the air is sweeter). I try to put in at least one building for every ten inhabitants, in modern times maybe two to three times that much, we live much less densely these days, even though there are more of us.