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I need to create a printed map using QGIS with an arbitrary grid superimposed, such as is usually found on street maps.. say A to K on one axis and 1 to 10 on the other. Then I will need to create an index showing how to find each street.

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I don't know how to do either part of this. Any suggestions?

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Yes, this is possible with a plugin called Create Indexed Vector Grid

(disclosure: I'm the author of the plugin)

It creates a regular grid of named cells, and each cell can be named using a spreadsheet-like naming convention.

It works best if you use a CRS in meters (assuming you're covering a city).

You can use a spatial join (Join Attributes by Location) to find out which cell each features falls into, and use Map Composer Attribute Tables to make an index, as in the London A-Z or a typical road atlas.

There's a blog post about it here, and an example here on flickr

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