Geography has never really been my strong suit, even after I got 99 out of 100 on a geography test in Year 9. The missing point was because I’d misplaced Bordeaux on a map of France. It is, however, maps that I’ll be discussing in this blog and how important they are when world building.
As well as not being much of a geographer, it will surprise few to learn that I’m not particularly skilled at drawing. Embarking on this new project has meant having to more than brush up on both, although admittedly the map I have drawn for the world I’m building will be most likely handed over to a professional at some point with a cry of “Make this look much better, please!” The map itself, crude as it may be, is something I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful in visualising not just the world, but the story too. As I said in the first volume of this blog, the story comes first.
I’d already worked out the basic premise of both the world and the story before setting out to draw the map, which informed a few key elements. There needed to be a main continent, with two large islands on the west and east coast of that continent. To the south, we see the top of another continent, which is as of yet, undeveloped. At first, I began dividing up the main continent into different nations. While this will be vital to the story, after a bit of research, I was reminded of a basic principle. The idea of borders as we know them are a fairly recent notion. It is geographical features and obstacles that would have formed the first, rudimentary national borders. It therefore become necessary to add a series of mountains along one border, which in itself then informed and enhanced the lore of the world I’ve been crafting.
Economics also have to be taken into consideration. The world I’m crafting is very much a fantasy world, and magic plays a part in everyday life, but it isn’t the answer to everything. The people living in this world still need to acquire food and materials, so the notion of trade comes into play. If I’ve got two continents, where is the best place along the coast to establish a port or two? How has the location of a settlement influenced its development over the decades and centuries? As an example, I have one settlement essentially right in the middle of a pass between mountains which border two countries. The settlement was set up as a fortress, originally, and has to rely on its friends to the east for supplies. The fortress has become a little less essential as a military post over time, allowing for a small city to develop, but nowhere near the level of those cities closer to the ports. All little details that should be considered when crafting a new world.
Time and space matter in storytelling. It’s still taking me a bit of research to nail this one down, because as I’ve said, this blog is an exploration of my journey. I’m not claiming to know everything. A map usually comes with a scale, to let you know just how great a distance a centimetre on the map represents. Ultimately, this informs just how long it takes a character to travel from one place to another. Of course, it depends on their mode of transport, and I have cheated just a little by creating a breed of horse that’s been trained and enhanced with spells for greater speed and durability. Still, the point stands. If you want a character to be in one place today and another tomorrow, you need to be sure of how long it’ll take them to get there. There’s no teleportation in this world, no great shortcuts.
Similar to this, being able to see one location in relation to another has helped me a great deal when it came to visualising the story. The bulk of the action in the beginning takes place in one location, but as my main character begins to travel, I found that having a map to look at really did inform certain decisions about the story. If your character needs to get somewhere but must avoid a certain place, the map shows you where they must go. It also allowed me to better visualise certain political alliances, based solely on geographical locations. It makes battles easier to see and informs the tactical decisions you make your characters take.
In summary, it really is true what they say. “Location, location, location.” This is the first time I’ve tried using a map to inform my story telling, and it’s been a revelation on many fronts. Even if it never ends up being seen by anyone else, I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone dabbling with the genre.