The Where is the best place to start
1 – you’ve got your story, and you’re still reading in and out of your genre because a love of writing walks quietly holding hands with a love of reading as apple blossoms bloom and bees buzz around bushes.
2 – you know where your story belongs.
You’re ready to start writing your book. You get into a chapter, and something or someone is somewhere. Stop right there. Where are they? More importantly, where is your reader?
That’s the old map and all the prep notes, and the finished product.
Before I sat down and started writing Hummingbird’s Tear, I already had the map of Barclan drawn and key places marked off with rough ideas of the terrain, climate and length of time it would take to travel between places. (I use this map as part of my planning so it has details of book 3 written on it, hence why I don’t have a picture of it on this blog, that yellow one in the picture is an old version). Regardless of all the prep work on characters, plot, themes, back stories and creation mythology (covered in the next blog), I did the map and the world first because everything has to happen somewhere and it is either going to happen in the ‘real world’, the past or future, or in a place that does not exist. Mine happens in a place that does not exist in the reader’s mind unless I place it there. That is what this blog intends to do, give you a few tips on creating the physical geography so when you are writing and someone is reading it becomes a destination.
Your universe: in other words, is your story taking place in ‘our’ world with recognisable features like lakes, forests, day and night (yes really) and time. Will your story happen in a place where, essentially, our laws of physics prevail? If so, you don’t have to be specific about it as the reader will assume the nature order of things. However, if you are creating an entire alternate reality, you have to give strong clues or be specific.
For example, in our universe you can assume time moves forward, beings are born, they live, they die. You can assume gravity. You can assume colour. You can assume weather etc. Each of those assumptions branches of very quickly into other assumptions the reader is going to make and it will quickly feel familiar, but you need to remember to follow, loosely, the rules of that universe so the reader feels comfortable in it, the more comfortable you make them, the more likely they are to accept and buy into your story. Because I crafted Barclan in Hummingbird, by the time the reader gets to The Giant’s Echo I can create more magical events and less on the ‘where’ because that is embedded.
The world: you don’t need to create continents or decide if it’s a flat earth or not. (For the record, the earth is NOT flat, so we won’t use that example). You do need to have an idea of how the land masses are set up. I always say, draw a map. Something to consider…If you have a world with a lot of individual islands then it follows your story is going to be hyper focused on specific locations, or involve sea travel. If it is sea travel you have to have a society described with suitable advancement to make travel possible and believable. If you have a lot happening spread across a lot of isolated locations, your story will involve a lot of travel, and that can be a bit dull if it is the same type of event happening over and over. It also creates issues with timelines in the story and those unravel quickly. I’m not saying don’t use this geography, I’m just saying, plan it well. Just as ships sink at sea, so the reader can be blown off course by too many prevailing winds that fill sails and banks of oars pulled by strong arms.
If you have a large land-mass with split into individual kingdoms how are you going to make them distinct from each other? Why do they need to be distinct? Because you are going to want to have unique characters from unique places that individualise them, and characters need a cultural reference, and often cultures are borne from the landscape in which the civilisations evolve.
Your countries: Set natural boundaries between kingdoms – rivers, mountains, deserts, all a little cliché I’ll admit, but all realistic and easily acceptable by your reader.
You need a north and south and unless you are outside of our universe it is generally expected and acceptable that north is colder than the middle. I follow this rule, but with an exception. I imply but don’t explicitly state that the landmass Barclan is on ends in the south with a desert, not a south pole. My land goes from the kingdom of Vaden which is cold in the north, to Barclan which is a large central kingdom, to the Nahaas desert in the south which is hot. My world doesn’t go further south than that and get into cooler climes again. The reader can assume it does, but it doesn’t matter and I’ve given them no reason to think of it.
Work out your waterways because people need to live and to live you need water. Don’t have a huge sprawling city next to a small stream, it will nag at your reader. Kraner is a large city on the coast. It isn’t near a major river, but it is over a deep underground lake where water is drawn from. I set that up in Hummingbird’s Tear and haven’t needed to mention it since.
Your world needs a climate. A proper one. It doesn’t matter if you have an equatorial or temperate or arctic type climate, as long as it is set right and the world you describe matches the climate and the people in your story react in the correct way, weather is an incredibly powerful way of drawing the reader into a scene.
It’s good to plan your towns and buildings
Your cities and towns: If your story happens in different kingdoms what are you adding to your descriptions to give them a signature feel? All the towns and cities in Barclan for example have taverns, guild offices and houses built of stone and brick and all are more than single storey buildings. It’s a subtle description, but used enough times it helps to build an image of the types of buildings without needing to write the detail myself. Having an upstairs implies stairs obviously, but it also implies strong solidly built houses, it implies windows, you see where this lead? I have made Barclan a very commercial kingdom, there are always reference to taverns, markets, places for people to buy and sell. Most of the background townspeople are involved in buying and selling or manufacture, again I’m underpinning that Barclan is a large stable kingdom protected by strong natural borders that give them protection and have allowed them to prosper. That is important because the prosperity has led to complacency which is part of the reason that A’taz was allowed to creep back into the kingdom.
New places are easier to differentiate if your main location is embedded with your reader
You can then easily differentiate your main kingdom and culture form others with really very little effort. Barclan is not a very devout or religious place, this is made obvious by the lack of mentioned cathedrals to the very real Gods, and in contrast Orania is set up as the religious fanatical kingdom by casual reference to their love of cathedrals and a singular reference to a priestess in The Giant’s Echo. Vaden is a cruel and war-like kingdom, implied through a conversation between Cotta and Brennan.
Features as plot devices: in Barclan I’ve placed Kraner and Penrose as coastal locations opposite each other forcing the north of Barclan to move goods to the south by boat, because the interior is divided in part by a large swamp. It’s a plot device for staging action and evolving the sub-plot. It works well, use your landscape.
The more you build your central world the easier it is to lay foundations for other places and people with minimum effort. I have three kingdoms, Barclan is the main focus, with Orania alongside it with mountains between them, for now, not threatening. Vaden on the other hand I have not mentioned any natural border beyond a river easily crossed in summer. I’ve mentioned they are watching Barclan waiting for it fail, at which point they’ll invade. In about 5 sentences, Vaden is a threatening menacing presence and it sets up tension and stress in the story.
The when: decide the time frame for your people/person/civilisation. Are you building a world where glass has been invented? Do they have matches, or another way of putting it, do they have basic chemistry? Is there a blacksmith? If so, learn about metals and alloys so you aren’t mixing led and a metal that bends easily and shines in the sun like liquid yellow. Steel is steel, you don’t need to make it fancy. Just have a spell cast on it if you want to, that’s okay, it’s fantasy.
Lastly, the particulars which you sometimes need to mention and remember:
Be consistent with the naming. Don’t call one place Peacehaven and the town down the road Kh’lo’Bah. The same with people’s names, and the names of things.
How do people travel? Travel by magic is fine if that level of magical advancement has been prepared and crafted into your story. Otherwise, walking, sailing, horses, carts. Reliable.
How is food distributed?
If there is a war in your story, how do you feed large numbers of troops, and what do you do when people are sick or hurt.
That’s about it from me, draw a map. Maps help.
My world right now is Barclan