Our modern lives are ruled by the geography of our area. Rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds impede travel, forcing a road to go around them.
Unfortunately, maps have fallen out of favor thanks to satellite technology and the GPS in our cell phones. Many people don’t know how to read a map.
However, maps (and the ability to understand them) are a useful tool for authors of fantasy and speculative fiction, or indeed, any fiction set in any place and time.
Where I live, Puget Sound‘s shoreline determines the interstate highway’s path and the locations of cities and towns. Those detours add to the distance we must travel and increase the time it takes to go from one place to another.
The stylesheet is one of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress.
I suggest you include a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes related to that novel. Those are bits of knowledge you will be glad you made a note of, as they will contribute to the believability of your narrative.
If you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.
If you are interested, a post on creating a stylesheet is here: Designing the Story.
If you are designing a fantasy world, you only need a pencil-drawn map. Place north at the top, east to the right, south to the bottom, and west to the left. Those are called cardinal points and the position of north at the top and the directions east, south, and west following at 90-degree intervals in the clockwise direction is standard in modern maps.
Even if your story is set in a town, you need to map it out. Knowing which direction your people are going at the outset is critical if your characters are going from one spot to another. The lines and scribbles you add to your map are the information you can use to check for consistency in your narrative.
If, in chapter one, Hero leaves home and follows the river north to the Big City of Smallville, he won’t reach home in time to save his mother if he then races east in chapter ten. He must return south, and your notes on your little map will help you remember this.
Or perhaps Hero lives in a city and wants coffee at the shop two blocks north of his apartment. He will have to return past the same shops and buildings he passed on the way. If some of the action occurs in those buildings, you want to have your map out and update it as needed.
Use a pencil, so you can easily note whatever changes during revisions. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. Lay it out like a standard map with north at the top, east on the right, south at the bottom, and west on the left.
You may need to note where rivers and forests are situated relative to towns, or in the case of towns, what streets and cross streets our Heroes must travel.
Many towns are situated on rivers. Water rarely flows uphill. While it may do so if pushed by the force of wave action or siphoning, water is a slave to gravity and chooses to flow downhill. When making your map, locate rivers between mountains and hills.
A river may emerge from a mountain spring or a glacier, but it will flow downhill to a valley where it will either continue on to the ocean or will pool and form lakes and ponds. Farms are usually situated near sources of water.
On your fantasy map, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds make travel difficult, forcing a road or trail to go around them. This creates opportunities for plot points, because the struggle is the story.
Those detours add to the distance and increase the time it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.
Having a realistic grip on time is critical to keeping the narrative believable. I keep a calendar of events for each novel, which has saved me several times.
Maybe you aren’t artistic but will want a nice map later. In that case, a little scribbled map will enable a map artist to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. An artist can give you a map containing the information readers need to enjoy your book.
Are changing seasons a part of your story?
In a first draft, it’s challenging to fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the page because you are in the process of inventing it. Don’t worry about fine details when you are laying down the story. Go ahead and write “It was autumn” when you have an action scene that must be shown.
A blunt statement like that is a code embedded there for you to expand on in the second draft. It is there so that you can just get the story out of your head and move on.
However, in the revision process, I take those three words, it was autumn, and change them up, using them to lead into the action.
Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.
In my part of the world, the native forest trees I see in the world around me are mostly Douglas firs, western red cedars, hemlocks, big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. Because I am familiar with them, these are the trees I visualize when I set a story in a forest.
When it comes to geography, the “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. What does your character see, hear, and smell? Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.
Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply. The metallic aftertaste of terror and bitter air lingered in her imagination, overriding the musty scents of earth and leaves.
What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?
Cities have complex geography. It is created by the terrain the city was built on and its architecture.
The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.
Seattle is built between the salty waters of Puget Sound, and the fresh waters of Lake Washington, the largest natural lake in western Washington. This geography affects our modern society by limiting where highways can be built, as well as determining the good places to raise tall buildings or create suburban neighborhoods.
Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful. Rivers, forests, lakes–these geographical places provide resources that allow towns to become cities.
Your narrative will mention all the different terrains and obstacles your characters must deal with. A little map scribbled on notepaper will help you keep things on track.
Credits and Attributions:
Image: Satellite View of Puget Sound, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).
Image: Satellite View of Seattle, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).