Geography rules our lives. In my area, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound, dominates the landscape. Numerous rivers, two decently large mountain ranges, a bunch of volcanoes, and innumerable lakes and ponds impede travel in this part of the world. We are forced to build roads that follow these obstacles, go around them, or climb the lowest passes.
Here, the shoreline of Puget Sound determines the path of the interstate highway. The major cities and towns are located where there are good deepwater ports.
The roads wind around these obstacles and add to the distance we must travel, increasing the time it takes to go from one place to another. In this part of the world, we cross bridges every day.
Building even rudimentary log bridges requires engineering, but humans have been making them since before we discovered fire. If you want your log to stay put, you must drop it where
- It won’t roll away.
- It won’t be washed away.
- It will bear your weight.
- It will reach the other side with enough clearance that you can safely travel across it without its falling into the chasm or water.
If you are designing a fantasy world, you might want to make 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. Placing the 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, a map will help you avoid contradictions. Knowing which direction they are going at the outset is critical if your characters travel 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.
I use a pencil so I can easily make changes to my map as the story evolves during revisions. My first maps for any given novel aren’t fancy. But I do suggest you lay your map out like a standard real-world map.
Forests and meadows like water. The climate of an area will be affected by the placement of mountains. Mountain ranges running north and south create what is known as a rain shadow.
This is demonstrated by the radical difference in climate and fauna within my state of Washington. Wikipedia says:
The high mountains of the Cascade Range run north-south, bisecting the state. In addition to Western Washington and Eastern Washington, residents call the two parts of the state the “Westside” and the “Eastside,” “Wet side” and “Dry side,” or “Timberland” and “Wheatland,” the latter pair more commonly in the names of region-specific businesses and institutions. These terms reflect the geography, climate, and industry of the land on both sides of the Cascades. 
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 on flood plains or near sources of water.
Access to water is crucial to life and prosperity. Humans have long understood the value of clean water for drinking, and you can’t count on getting that from streams or pools. Wells and the technology to make them have been around for a very long time. Cisterns have too, collecting rainwater for drinking and irrigation.
The oldest reliably dated well is from a neolithic site on the island of Cyprus. It has been dated to around 8400 BC and consists of a round shaft driven through limestone. The well tapped into an aquifer at a depth of 8 meters or 26 feet.
On your fantasy map, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds will impede travel, forcing a road to go around them.
Those detours will add to the distance and increase the time it takes to travel using whatever the common mode of transportation is for your chosen level of technology.
Having a realistic grip on the length of time it takes to go places 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 you want a nice map for your book. The little scribbled map you make to keep your narrative logical 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 to enable you to 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.
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.
Moira slipped the egg into the bag. It was the smallest but was far heavier than she’d thought. It took all her strength to carry it back to the entrance. She moved from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. At last, 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 and the rank odor of dragon scat.
Now she had to wait until the beast returned and went back inside its lair. Moira wrapped herself and the egg inside her cloak, blending into the underbrush. “Don’t worry, little one. I’ll keep you safe and warm.” She felt justified in her theft; the little dragon would never have survived the hatching frenzy. The others would have devoured it.
In my part of the world, the native forest trees 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.
My husband and I once drove from Olympia Washington to Grand Marais, Minnesota. After leaving the rolling prairies of North Dakota, we went through many miles of birch forests—something I had never seen. I was surprised at how short the vast woodlands we passed through were as compared to the dizzying heights of the forests near my home.
Those birch trees were nowhere near as tall as the giant cedars and Douglas firs I was familiar with. But once you were away from the road, the birch forests became dark jungles, tangled and mysterious.
Cities have complex geography and an environment that is theirs alone. It is created by the city’s original terrain and the materials its founders used to develop the architecture. Tall buildings loom, creating canyons through which we must pass on our way to wherever.
The odors and sounds of modern 21st-century life are essential components of worldbuilding in a contemporary novel. Cell phones, the bells and alerts of appliances, traffic sounds—we live in a noisy world. The way the streets sound to pedestrians is a crucial element of modern city life.
But villages have always had sounds and smells that are unique to human habitations. We have always created communities where resources are plentiful, but over time, climate changes. When it does, we adapt.
History and geology tell us that what was once a good place may become a desert over time. Your narrative will mention all the terrain your characters must deal with, and a little map scribbled on notepaper will help you keep things on track.
Next up: Visualizing the flora and fauna of the world. No matter where your story is set or the era it is set in, there will be life of some sort–even on a moon where you are that life.
Previous in this series: Worldbuilding part 1 – Checklist for Creating Societies
Credits and Attributions:
 Wikipedia contributors, “Washington (state),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Washington_(state)&oldid=1142551716 (accessed March 5, 2023).
Image: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Well-cistern.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Well-cistern.jpg&oldid=730998786 (accessed March 5, 2023).