Geography: Getting the Lay of the Land

G is for Geography...
G is for Geography…

Stopping by for the first time for the A-Z Challenge? Read a short intro to the A-Zs of Worldbuilding here!

Geography is important to figure out early on in your story – otherwise you end up with things spread out too far for what you’ve intended, or sometimes even a desert oasis in the middle of the arctic. 

So how do you figure out geography?

I’m honestly still figuring this one out myself. I can’t draw, nor am I extremely learned in the science behind the why of climates.

So I make up a lot of stuff.

But that’s the beauty of fantasy writing: I can get away with making up some stuff.

It is infinitely easier if your world is modeled after Earth, in the matter of figuring out which climates go where. If you veer from that, don’t worry, though. Artistic license is a wonderful thing to claim!

So how do you go about creating the land?

Sit down and let each of your characters ‘talk’ to you.

Find out where they’re from, and what common landmarks are that they see at home every day.

  • These are things like mountains, creeks, rivers, forests, desert, etc.
  • These are NOT things like homes, or towns, unless building a town or a city somewhere significantly changed the lay of the land.

Find out what the terrain is like.

  • Is it fields and plains, or rocky?
  • Are there a lot of hills?
  • What is the soil like? How much water does it absorb, or shed?
  • Is the area prone to earthquakes, floods, or volcanoes at all?
  • What was the last major change to the terrain within your character’s lifetime?
Do real-life research.

Is the climate suitable for the terrain you’ve created?

Are there different ‘laws of nature’ in your world than in ours? Why? What changes?

Since local climates are dependent on where in the world something is located, are your plans consistent with what is actually possible?

  • Do you have a hot desert right next to the polar tundra by accident?
  • Is there too much rain in a desert area?
  • Are there frequently heavy blizzards near the equator?

Note: If you’re writing fantasy, some of these things can be explained within reason. You can definitely have a hot desert next door to the arctic if, say, the weather is controlled by magic. Or deities.

Start making a map.

Your map doesn’t have to be pretty (hubby frequently laughs at my lack of artistic skill when he looks at my fictional maps, but he usually makes them better afterward, so it’s okay), but it should have, at minimum, these items:

  • Natural boundaries
    These are things like mountain ranges, forests, deserts, and sea shores.
  • Man-made boundaries
    Giant walls – think the Great Wall of China. Or the walls from Attack on Titan. Hush, either of these are valid, okay?
    Symbolic boundaries
    – countries, empires, states, etc.
    Any ruins of note.
  • Water sources
    Oceans, lakes, rivers, springs…
    DO make sure to note whether a body of water is fresh or salt. If your characters are humanoid, they must have access to fresh water for survival, whether it is straight from the ground, or through distillation.
  • Major cities
    These will be clumped around major water sources, so do those before this step.
  • A graphical scale.
    A what, you say? Yes, a graphical scale.
    These are those little tiny measuring sticks on maps that say how many inches (or centimeters) = a certain amount of miles/kilometers/however you want to measure your distances.
    It doesn’t matter if your fictional world uses a different scale of measure that is either fictional or real. You must have some way that YOU can reliably measure distances from place to place on your map.
    Trust me. You’ll thank me later when you don’t have to rewrite the timing of any traveling parts of your story.
A graphical scale. By Anna Frodesiak.
A graphical scale. By Anna Frodesiak.
  • A compass.
    You know, to mark north, south, east, and west.
  • A legend.
    This is not mandatory, but it is helpful if you have more than a few symbols to mark different things on your map.

Finishing Off…

You don’t have to get extremely detailed in your map – this does not need to be a road map like we have nowadays, unless you want it to be.

Just make sure you know where the places relevant to your story are, so that you can stay consistent with your writing.

Original Image used in header is by Aymaan Ahmed, under a CC BY-NC 2.0 License. The image was Cropped for the Header.

My intention is to turn the A-Zs of Worldbuilding into a workbook after the Challenge is finished. If you’d like to stay notified about that, you can subscribe to my newsletter here. Please make sure and select the A-Zs of Worldbuilding option!

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About Rebekah

Rebekah Loper writes character-driven epic fantasy featuring resilient women in trying and impossible circumstances who just want to save themselves but usually end up saving the world, often while falling in love.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (...chickens. They're chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she's not writing, she battles the Oklahoma elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.