Some lines from Swinburne, first, from “Aholibah.”
Strange raiment clad thee like a bride,
With silk to wear on hands and feet
And plates of gold on either side:
Wine made thee glad, and thou didst eat
Honey, and choice of pleasant meat.
And fishers in the middle sea
Did get thee sea-fish and sea-weeds
In colour like the robes on thee;
And curious work of plaited reeds,
And wools wherein live purple bleeds.
And round the edges of thy cup
Men wrought thee marvels out of gold,
Strong snakes with lean throats lifted up,
Large eyes whereon the brows had hold,
And scaly things their slime kept cold.
1) Don’t let lack of artistic skill hold you back from making a map.
A map is sometimes the last thing to be created for a fantasy world, but you should try to have a good picture in mind of what your world looks like from the beginning. Write down a description if you don’t think you can make a good drawing. Perfection isn’t to be expected, but you should try to avoid the obvious mistakes, so that they don’t get you in trouble later.
If you find it works better for you to set up the geography of your fantasy world as the story goes along, then make notes whenever you mention a major geographical feature. This will prevent you from forgetting about a mountain range, or forgetting where two countries lie in relation to one another.
2) Choose logical borders between nations.
Mountain ranges and rivers make natural ones, as do bays and inland seas. Forests might make good ones if the countries can agree on the side of the forest where their territory starts. If you have long stretches of grassland, though, or if both countries claim a certain piece of land, borders are at best a mapmaker’s guess. Keep an eye on this if you’re detailing something like a criminal’s flight between countries. He can’t be safe “crossing the border” if there’s no way of telling where the border is, and if the people pursuing him can make a good case for chasing him partway past the imaginary line.
It also doesn’t make sense to decree a border somewhere just because someone says so, ignoring geographical features altogether. I’ve encountered fantasy maps where there seems no reason a kingdom shouldn’t extend to following the line of a river, but for some reason it halts short of the river, and both banks of the stream are in the same country. Other times, kingdoms include mountain ranges or half a track of forest, yet stop short of including a tiny scrap of another country on a coast. If there are historical reasons that override the geographical reasons, be sure to think of them. Humans usually have reasons for defining and defending the boundaries of nations; they don’t simply come up with them out of thin air.
3) Look hard at the courses of your rivers.
Sometimes they’re wandering all over the damn place, with no sign of a lake or sea in sight. Other times, they flow towards the mountains rather than away. Keep in mind that rivers need a reasonable source. Mountains, because of snowmelt, are a good one. They also need a reasonable destination. Again, a sea or a lake is possible, or even a delta that opens into the sea, but not just the middle of nowhere. Rainfall by itself can’t produce more than a temporary flash flood in a ravine, the kind you get in a desert. To create a river from rain alone, the storms would have to be more or less constant.
Also, remember that rivers ran downhill, thanks to the pull of gravity. Rivers can flow north, like the Nile in our world, but they still can’t go uphill. If your heroes are going from a town on the river into the mountains, they’ll need oars or a strong wind, since they’re going against the pull of the current. At least, they damn well better be.
This kind of detail is something that people usually grasp easily in conception, but it’s all too easy to write about someone floating merrily to the mountains with the current.
4) Don’t put your mountain ranges too neatly on the map.
Ranges running in a straight line without a single deviation are all too common in fantasy, as are ranges at right angles to each other. (See the Wheel of Time map for an excellent and very unnatural depiction of this). It’s unlikely the mountains would be so neat in any land with normal development of ranges, and most of the time there’s really no reason to put them that way, no special purpose to the heroes or the land that’s served. Authors simply draw them that way, far more tidily than nature does.
Perhaps you don’t feel that you’re able to show every bend and twist and turn of the ranges on your map, but when you write about them in your story, mention that there are outlying peaks and some you can see far more clearly than others. Writing can convey a sense of naturalness and ease that drawing can’t, especially if you don’t have cartography skills (see point 1). If your heroes approach the mountains all at the same time, though, or especially if they somehow go straight from flat land to mountains, without foothills or any rise in the ground, then it sounds far more like a constructed land, without subtleties.
5) Don’t just stick swamps and deserts in the middle of nowhere.
Deserts can come about for a variety of reasons. If the land is overgrazed, then the ground is more likely to shed topsoil and turn infertile. In the rainshadow of mountains, then the land won’t get as much moisture and can advance in the direction of desert. Land that’s part of something else, such as prairie, but doesn’t receive much rain can also start turning that way. However, deserts should not be stuck in the middle of nowhere, particularly not next to a prosperous city or fertile fields without any transition. Again, this smacks of a constructed land. When you’re planning to put in a desert, ask yourself about why it is where it is, and if there’s a natural (or magical) explanation for it.
Swamps are a different matter. They need water, a low place in the ground to lie, and often heat as well. If you have a swamp at a distance from a body of water, how in the name of whatever deity your characters worship did it get there? Also, if you have a swamp near the mountains, how did it get there? Probably the best place for a swamp is near a delta, where you have water from a river going into the sea, low ground, and often fairly tropical conditions. Swamps can be in other places, but shouldn’t just be scattered every which way.
6) Remember that geography affects settlement.
The best places for cities that don’t have high levels of technology (or magic) to sustain them are on rivers, near oceans, and near places where rivers flow into oceans. This affords several advantages, among them trade, ease of travel, food, and, in a river town, fresh water.
If you have a city in the middle of nowhere, why is it there? How can it support itself? Where does water come from, where does food come from, where does building material come from? In such cases, a city would be almost entirely dependent on the farm fields around it, and probably on whoever sold wood or stone pulled from a long distance. This would be an unacceptable disadvantage when a conquering army came marching, unless the city took care to put some food aside in granaries, which could be targets for riots. And the lack of water would be an absolutely unacceptable vulnerability at any time. There would have to be water of some kind, even if it came from underground springs.
Farming villages can sustain themselves much more easily, but the people there are devoted to caring for the land and growing food, which people in a city usually don’t spend much time doing. Also, there are fewer people, so they can survive more easily on the flow of a tiny river, and the houses in a farming village are usually simpler, not constructed of the expensive stones that many cities in fantasylands use as a matter of course. Before you set up a city on land that would only sustain a farming village, ask yourself how they managed to build it in the first place, and what compelling reason there was for it to be there, rather than at the point much closer to the coast where the river enters the sea.
7) Consider how geography will affect trade.
As noted above, it’s easy to travel to cities that have some outlet to the water. What happens if a city lies in the middle of nowhere, or even in the high mountains or some other place that can only be reached by long days of difficult travel? They’re unlikely to get many visitors, or to be able to support themselves on trade. Most of the goods sold would probably be food, and rich ornaments and other luxuries would be especially rare. If merchants have taken the trouble to construct a trade route to the city anyway, then your city should be able to produce some splendid goods that make the possible rewards worth the risk.
Look at the land on which you place your city; that will give you some ideas about what can be grown, produced, or found there to supply trade. Mountains may provide metal and gems. A city in the desert may have rare fruits - perhaps the people in other parts of the world have a real craving for prickly pears, fine horses, and perhaps glass if the sand is right. Cities in the middle of fertile ground will have food on sale, and may buy primarily made things they don’t have the technology to create for themselves. Locations near forests will depend on lumber, hides, and meat. River and coastal towns will have fish and other seafood, and of course the tariffs they collect from the merchants themselves. And there’s always magic to fall back on. Perhaps your city is in the middle of the mountains because magic depends on altitude in your world and functions best there. The mages could create magical things that might more than pay the merchants back for the dangerous trek.
Geography can be the answer to a lot of subtle problems in a fantasy story, as long as it’s handled correctly.