How It Started vs How It’s Going

So everyone’s has their own particular *favorite style* of map. Browse r/mapmaking and you can see it breaks down into all sort of categories. Some people adore the real simple hand-drawn linework, or the iconic LOTR ink style. Others are all about the distressed parchment look, other still, the modern atlas.

Me? Deep down I’m all about the satellite look.

Nice top-down Google Earth style.

The problem as I may my “worldbook” -style info sheets, is that you can’t expect in-universe cartographers to be inking up satellite-style maps, surely. They’d be making 18th C style atlas maps, heavy on ink and low on color/accuracy. And I always love me some Tolkien-style mountains (I mean, who among us didn’t get into mapmaking from pouring over that LOTR map?)

So I compromised, and started making maps like these – sort of atlas-y, sort of parchment-y. Still some color to them.

But deep down, I knew it wasn’t enough for me.

And then I bought some new Photoshop brushes. Behold the Evolution of Sarkland.

So yeah, big mapping overhaul underway.


Tools of the Trade – Portraits using and Artbreeder

I recently found a great app for making 18-19th Century style portraits:

Just upload a picture, be it a selfie, a stock photo, your favorite celebrity or art model, and you can generate an oil painting in the style of the old masters.
The program is still very restrictive in terms of race (it will literally whitewash any POC), and aesthetics (the AI doesn’t quite know what to do with more modern or offbeat hairstyles), the website promises more diverse possibilities as the app continues to evolve. In the meantime, if you’re not a portrait artist but you’d love to “see” your European-equivalent characters, it’s a great place to play.


Here are some of my rulers from the Kingdom of Night:

But suppose you need to create a portrait from scratch? Or your character is less than lily-white? Then I highly recommend Artbreeder!


Here’s a screencap from one of the portraits I made. You can start with a randomly generated face, or choose multiple starting images from the catalog, then play around with all the sliders to customize gender, age, race, width and height, facial expression, colors of eyes and hair, and just how “artsy” vs. “photorealistic” you want to go.  Go a little too far in any category and the results are… abstract to say the least. But a little practice and you can make just about any face. I quite like turning up the “Art” slider to get that “DnD sourcebook painting” look:

Farewell and Good Riddance, 2020!

Okay, the year wasn’t all bad. Lockdown gave me a chance to finish the first draft of East of the Sun, I finally caught up on my sleep debt,  and there are far worse places to be stuck in than Victoria, BC. Still, count me among those who are clinging to an almost-religious certainty that 2021 HAS to be better.

With that in mind, I’ll let Honest Trailers give this year a proper send-off.

Happy New Year’s everyone! See you on the other side.

Worldbuilding – Pick your Scale

The age-old fantasy writer’s dilemma: how much of the world exists – both in your own head and more importantly, in the heads of your characters. If your setting is only medieval-level, it would strain credulity for all but the most exceptional navigator to have an accurate map of the entire globe (or flat sheet, or dome on the turtle’s back, etc.).  Some writers only sketch out the immediate surroundings of their characters, then expand as need be. Many only reveal what is within the limits of their setting’s “known world.”  (We’re still waiting to hear just how big Essos is, George!)

Personally, I work best as zoomed-out as I can manage. In fact, sometimes I zoom out WAY too much and have to reel myself back in. But with my tidally locked world Bifrons, I had a good excuse. It has has such varied landscape depending on longitude and light levels that you need to see the bigger picture. And the more I worked out the logistics of having late 18th century level tech on such a world, the more I realized the characters needed to know as much of the world as possible. With some small exceptions in the Gloaming, this is NOT a friendly planet. Resources must be carefully rationed and traded, often over huge distances.  It stands to reason that the maps the inhabitants have are rather more accurate than anything we were able to have on Earth in 1800.

I debated making “in-universe” maps that show the globe with those nice “Here be Dragons” blank spots like our own explorers had. But having put so much work into making my coastlines, I didn’t want to consign them to the eraser tool. So I hereby decree the inhabitants of Bifrons hate blank spaces as much as I do. So they’ve filled in their globes to near-satellite precision. Whether it’s all accurate or not is another matter. No one will able to hike all the way to the middle of the Nightside and check for many generations.

Updates – When is it “good enough”?

All creators know the feeling: sitting on your work instead of releasing it into the aether. “What if it isn’t ready yet? What if I think of something else to add? What if there’s a mistake somewhere? What if I’m not strong enough to handle the feedback right now? Maybe I’ll just let it percolate a little longer. Just a little longer. One more proofread. One more beta reader/viewer.”

Eventually you have to take the plunge and hit post.

And then it happens. The work just isn’t good enough.

Oh, it might be just fine for the world at last. You might be getting some sweet feedback. You might even feel the warm glow of pride. But deep down you know, you can do better. You can do more. You can do it differently.

This is all a roundabout way to announce I’ve remade the fact files for my world Bifrons. Click to embiggen.



Updates – Welcome to Bifrons

After lots of false starts and experimenting, I finally have a “look” I like for my “atlas” pages about Bifrons, the setting for my my upcoming novel East of the Sun.

The secret ingredient is love… and Photoshop to make the original map layout. Then G.Projector to turn it into a Robinson projection, and some more time in Photoshop to set up the page layouts.

Want to see more? Head over here.

On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened

You’ve probably seen this plaque about in any heritage district with a sense of humor. I first saw it on the side of a gift shop in Virginia City back in 2010, and I had a good laugh, because of course I had already chosen 1897 as the year for my Ghost Town Novels, and the sign was less than one block away from where I had set several pivotal scenes.

Of course, by 1897, the Comstock had gotten a lot sleepier. The boom days were back in the 1860s and 1870s, and by the late 1890s, both Virginia City and Gold Hill were in decline, lending them that extra veneer of nostalgia and atrophy that made for a perfect “ghost town” setting.

But why 1897 specifically? Well, it was a pretty lively year! The inspiration for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter Llewelyn Davies, was born. Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. The Klondike Gold Rush began.  Bayer Pharmaceuticals started selling Aspirin.  William McKinley was sworn in as president of the United States. And for my purposes: Bram Stoker’s horror novel Dracula was first published in London (it wouldn’t be published in North America until 1899). I never could pass up a mythology gag.

Mapping the Comstock

Maps Are Life. I’ve always loved cartography. It’s genetic: I grew up on a diet of yearly road trips, watching my mom sitting shotgun as the Official Navigator with her pile of AAA maps. On a high school camping trip I earned acclaim for spotting the mountain we were hiking on a terrain map while everyone else was trying to find north. My favorite memories involve me correcting the onboard GPS after realizing someone got X Avenue West and X Street North mixed up. It is now understood that on family road trips I am the Official Navigator, and I take my duties very seriously – even if I’m looking on Google Maps instead of the paper ones.

But when I started work on the Ghost Town series, I found myself with a bit of a problem.

A Map of Virginia City by Marie and John Gorham. High on atmosphere, low on meat.


This was the first 1800s map of Virginia City I had to work with, found in a book I borrowed from obscurity at the University of Victoria library.  It was utterly darling, and introduced me to  several important Comstock concepts like the Washoe Zephyr and the V&T Railroad. But as the majority of the action was NOT going to be taking place in mining offices, I knew I needed something with more substance.

Survey map of Gold Hill from 1890, by the Sanford Map Company courtesy of

NOW we’re talking! A visit to Historic Map Works got me the survey maps of Gold Hill, and I knit them all together into my main source for all my cartographic plotting. I found out where Bill Crawford’s jail sat in relation to the Catholic church where Charlie was forced to hunt for husbands, and just how close the Yellow Jacket and Kentuck mine shafts were to the center of town. It showed me how many houses had already become abandoned, and I picked relatively uninhabited areas to insert my strictly fictional locations, like the Brennan’s Canyon Hotel and the Crown Point Livery Stables.

From there I was ready to move on to the really fun stuff: Google terrain maps!

Now I just need to overlay 1897s features on 2010s terrain.


While the mining has destroyed several topographical features over the years (RIP Crown Point Ravine), the streets of Virginia City and Gold Hill have hardly changed since the 1890s. So I generated some terrain maps and painted locations overtop.

For years this was enough for me, especially as I could not include maps in the actual novels. Working with my Frankensteinesque collection was more than enough to plot and scheme. But as I got deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of Photoshop cartography, mapping out my new world of Bifrons, I knew I had to return to Gold Hill.

The Comstock Lode of the Ghost Town Novels (c) Jane Senese 2020

Using my terrain map as a base, and the wonderful brush packs of K. M. Alexander (a godsend to any aspiring cartographer), I finally have my definitive Ghost Town map. This one is an overview that works for all three novels, but I’m planning to make three specific ones for each story, with more detail. (I had to REALLY simplify Virginia City’s street plan to make it fit.)

Inspiration – The Very Beginnings

It all started with this:

Fourth Ward School, Virginia City, Nevada

Wait… actually, it all started with THIS:

Phantom Manor, Disneyland Paris

I’m an unabashed Disney Junkie, and one of my absolute favorite rides is the Phantom Manor in Disneyland Paris: it combines the classic Disney Haunted Mansion vibe with a great western feel.  And the worldbuilding! The backstory about the failing mining town of Thunder Mesa and its malevolent founder Henry Ravenswood adds so much to the experience.

So when I had a notion (inspired by a very bizarre dream involving the phrase “you may now bite the bride”) about a wild west vampire, I knew I wanted to lean into that Phantom Manor aesthetic.  A quick glance through my Disney art books revealed that the Phantom Manor was based in large part off the Second Empire style of the Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, Nevada.

I had a setting!

Now, I knew literally nothing about the Silver Rush or even boom towns in the most abstract terms.  While I’m sure I had heard the phrase “Comstock Lode” before, it had never caught my interest. But soon I was wading through websites and ransacking the shelves at my local university library, ordering books and pouring over Google Maps terrain images. It was the wildest self-taught crash course I’d ever embarked on, and I was hooked.

Most of A Ghost Town Vampire was already written before I got my chance to visit the Comstock in the flesh, but being there and feeling the environment  added a last-minute richness to my descriptions that I never could have managed working off photos alone. And of course, among all my other sight-seeing, I had to pay a pilgrimage to the Fourth Ward School.

Imagine if the Disney Imagineers hadn’t mentioned their inspiration for old Phantom Manor!