Gerardus Mercator was born today in 1512. Yes, that Mercator, as in maps, as in one of cartographic history’s groundbreaking creations, the Mercator Atlas. The Mercator projection* displayed latitude and longitude as a grid, which (while causing all sorts of difficulties with pole-proximate object scales that persist to this day**) allowed sailors to plot their courses in straight lines. Sounds like a simple thing? Try calculating where you are, and where you need to go, while tossing up and down on the deck of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, using hand-held scientific instruments and a flattened, rum-stained ellipse with sea monsters at the edges, then see how you feel;)
In honor of Mercator’s 503rd birthday, I want to point my fellow writers to an article on the right ways (and wrong ways) to build a cartographic history for your fantasy land:
10 Rules For Making Better Fantasy Maps
I particularly like suggestion #3 for urban fantasists; when it comes to understanding city form, it’s hard to go wrong with Kevin Lynch at your side.
Map: a useful distortion of reality.
* For more on Mercator’s process and the social context in which he produced his maps, see this excerpt from Mark Monmonier’s Rhumb Lines and Map Wars, via the University of Chicago Press.
** Check out this interactive puzzle map for a fun demonstration of size distortions.