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Randy Asplund
conducted by Tony Daniel
Baen Podcast Interview - June 14, 2013

An Interview with Cartographer Randy Asplund

Cartographer Randy Asplund’s maps have appeared in many Baen books over the years. Most recently Randy has done the maps for high fantasy Phoenix Rising by Ryk E. Spoor, for Tom Kratman’s upcoming Carerra sequel Come and Take Them, for Steve White's Jason Thanou time travel books, and for the new entry in the General series, The Heretic, by David Drake and Tony Daniel, to name a few.

Randy was a painting major at the University of Michigan. He’s been a very active medieval reenactor as well.

TONY: Randy, you’ve said you always wanted to be an illustrator and artist within science fiction and fantasy. How did you prepare for that calling?

RANDY: I came into it in a strange way. Unlike those with the desire to produce comic book art, which is an area that brings in a lot of genre artists, when I was in high school I had fantasies of being an aeronautical engineer and an interest in being an archeologist. Then I graduated high school and started going to science fiction conventions. At the first science fiction convention I went to, I discovered the art show. They had an Artist Guest of Honor walk in and put up her work, and I thought that it was so cool! There I was, in my second year of college as a fine arts major, and I realized that this was what I wanted to do. I loved the genre, I loved doing this kind of stuff. I'm able to paint spacecraft, and then go paint griffins, dragons, or whatever comes up. It just seemed tailor-made for the rest of my life. So I started looking at how to build a career in science fiction and fantasy art.

TONY: How did you get started doing maps for Baen Books, and what are some of the other maps you’ve worked on for Baen over the years?

RANDY: I believe it was at a Lunacon actually, around 1999 or so, when I was at a publisher's party sitting on the floor and talking about medieval reenactment. I belong to The Society for Creative Anachronism, and we put on our armor and do medieval tournament and battle fighting, and such. I just happened to be sitting on the floor in front of this woman who piped up and said “Hey, I know you.” It was the editor for Tournaments Illuminated, which is the quarterly magazine for our organization, and she had been my editor for that. This was Nancy Hanger, who was also working for Baen at the time.

We struck up a conversation. She knew the work I had done for Tournaments Illustrated and, she felt my manuscript calligraphy and illumination skills would be right for several books that she was working on at Baen. The next thing I knew, I was doing a map for an Eric Flint novel. I think that book came out in 2000, so that was quite a while ago. I did art in a lot of books that had Eric with several different coauthors attached to them. There were other books by authors such as Dave Freer and David Weber. I've done art for Ryk E. Spoor, and there was a Mercedes Lakey or two in there. I’ve done maps for Steve White, a very good author, John Dalmas—and the list goes on and on. I’ve been able to really stretch myself because on one job I might be doing historical maps of alternate 17th century Europe and then on the next job I might be doing star charts, which are always fun, such as the one from Hell's Gate.

TONY: So take us through the process of making a map for a science fiction or fantasy novel. Is there a standard way you go about it, or is each one different?

RANDY: Well, the first thing, of course, is to get the specs on the map from the publisher, and that means getting information on what the resolution will be, and what the pixel dimensions will be. The maps are ultimately going to be sent as digital files, so that is important. And I have to keep in mind the scale of the objects in the map when they are shrunken down and printed in a paperback book. And then, of course, the author usually provides some kind of hand-drawn map that is nine times out of ten completely out of scale with the proportional rectangle that you need. You have the challenge of trying to figure out how best to fit your draft map onto one or maybe two pages as a spread. If it doesn't quite work, sometimes I invent artwork to go around it. Although oftentimes these are rectangular borders going around the map, I sometimes change that around. In David Weber’s The Shadow Of Saganami, I did star fields inside an oval border, and then I made the star chart inside of that. So that was kind of fun.

My approach on these is usually digital, but not always. I have done handwritten calligraphy on paper and then scanned it in. That's best, too, if you want to make your own kind of “font,” if you will, and really make the lettering artsy. Otherwise, I go out on the internet and collect a lot of interesting fonts to use so I'll have them available. The nice thing about font sets is I can scale them and I can type them out rather than place each letter individually. I can also easily move them around. Sometimes though, I may be dealing with an “alien writing” or symbols, and I have to invent all of these things by either drawing them by hand or drawing them digitally. I use a graphics tablet exclusively for all of my digital drawing.

The maps all have to be in grayscale, so I have to be very careful that all of the elements have good contrast. We can have a little ink bleed on various papers, so to make sure the lines are crisp and clean and bold enough, I have to keep account of how thick I make the lines. So, there are a lot of different factors to keep in mind when I am working on these.

TONY: How do you decide on the general look of a map?

RANDY: First of all, I think about what the map is trying to represent. I need to get the information that the author wants to have in there. That's the highest priority. I can't distort it, because the author is giving us a map because he or she wants us to understand the relationship of where things are. There are times when that might require a smaller area to be enlarged as, say, a second map or an inset, but I really have to stay faithful to what the author wants, and get all of his or her labels into the picture. The best way to do that is to play around with rotating it and scaling the whole image, trying to fit it into the rectangle that I am given. Now, I am allowed to shorten my rectangle so that it isn't so tall and narrow, but if I do that it often looks a bit funky on the page because of the different page proportion of the book, so I really want to keep to the proportion of the format I've been given. Other than that, I try to plan every map out with artistic composition in mind. The art has to look good, and not just show the object.

TONY: Do you have any favorite or memorable maps you’ve done for Baen?

RANDY: One of my favorites was in Pyramid Power by Eric Flint and Dave Freer. It wasn't your standard kind of map. It was done as a pencil rendering on a large sheet of paper, because it was an oblique view of the Norse cosmos. So, there's this land mass floating around in space, and out from it comes an enormous tree that grows straight up through the picture. And there is a spiral that wraps up and through and around the tree, and that's the world, all nested in the branches. Then I had to add in all of the features that make up the Norse cosmos. It was a lot of fun to put all of those things in there as a pencil rendering, as opposed to a flat, line-work with color fields. I also enjoyed mapping the star fields in Hell's Gate, or when I had to map Venice. That was very enjoyable, learning about the streets of Venice and what the city looked like.

TONY: Was that for the Heirs of Alexandra series?

RANDY: It was for 1634:The Galileo Affair.

It was a lot of fun doing all the maps of Europe in that series, too. They're based on real history, and get by without a lot of changes to the geography, just the political lines pretty much are changing. I did have to pay attention to what the area looked like at the time the story happened, which is often not the same as the geography looks today. Coastlines change, and people build cities out into the ocean, and people dam up rivers to make lakes, and all sorts of things happen through the centuries.

TONY: You can find out more about Randy and his other work, which is also amazing and varied, at RandyAsplund.com.