Often the favourite part of a fantasy book is the map. A land of the imagination, full of cities with strange names, mountain passes guarded by trolls or otherworldly creatures, deserts of unending pain, oceans teeming with mermaids and sea monsters. Who doesn’t remember the map of Middle Earth or of Narnia? It requires but the smallest particle of imagination to thrill at the words ‘here be dragons’ from maps of a century past. Do the daring questers know what lies ahead? Or is the friendly wizard leading them into doom? What happens when the astrogator dies, and none can navigate the star charts? Such is the power of landscape in a novel.
There are a few map drawing programs online, so it is worth checking a few out. However, the first place to start is with a pencil and sheet of paper. One fantasy novel I wrote for Nanowrimo (National Write a Novel in November) had a rough sketched map as the entire plot outline. My valiant hero had to battle thru pirate infested oceans, fight sentient apes, while his sister defeated an ancient mage and learnt of her own magic from a forest Druid. But having the map let me play with ideas, and I could see the plot as he trudged and fought through the landscape.
It is well worth looking at some maps of Earth and thinking about what sorts of environments you want. A desert? Tropical forests? Waterfalls? Mountains? Swamps? These don’t just pop out of nowhere, the landscape is a product of a lot of time acting on the underlying geology, which itself is dependent on the atmosphere, water levels, minerals, and the amount of volcanic activity. For instance, the soil of Australia is quite nutrient deficient due to the long period of time of erosion without any volcanic activity to add a layer of fresh rock. The plants have adapted to cope with this, and indeed often die if too much fertiliser is added to the soil. In contrast, the soils of volcanic islands are often deep rich clays that support an abundance of vegetation. Climate naturally plays a part as well in creating these differences.
However, let’s start with geography 101. For Earth, the upper layer containing the continents etc is a series of plates, that move gently over time due to currents within the magma layer they float upon. These large plate move some centimetres a year, and some expand, some grind against each other and yet others exist where one is being pushed below the other. At these edges are all sorts of interesting things such as deep sea trenches, spontaneously appearing volcanic islands, earthquakes and mountains.
Geology 101. There are three basic types of rock. Volcanic, coming from a volcano, such as basalt. Plutonic, the deeper levels of a volcano that cooled slowly to form crystalline rocks like granite. Sedimentary rocks are the first two ground small into pebbles, sand and clay particles and then recompressed into rock such as sandstone. Metamorphic rocks are any of the others, but cooked, folded, twisted or chemically changed by volcanic activity. Each of these types of rock can form different landscape elements, have a different chemistry and hence nutrient level and this leads to different soils and therefore plants.
So take for instance a mountain. It could be an extinct or active volcano, or part of an ancient sea bed thrust high up such as the Himalayas. During uplift, cracks appear, rivers change course, and the rock slowly starts weathering into soil. Pockets of plants, lichen flourish, leading to further rock breakdown, and deeper soil. The rivers erode particles, and the rocks roll against each other, breaking down into sands and mud. Over time these will be buried by more layers, and start becoming sediments. Animals and plants die in the mud sand become fossils.
But how does this relate to fantasy and scifi? A realistic world is one full of plot elements to exploit. Caves, underground water, springs, deserts, forests and their wildlife and even adapted humans can all be part of your story. “Dune” by Robert Hubert used a desert world with spice mines and giant worms. Star Trek spent many an episode discovering strange planets and their inhabitants. Even space itself may be full of surprises. How many magnetic fields, sentient clouds and strange phenomenon did Star Trek find in their five year mission?
We can also delve into the effects of magic on a landscape. Ancient mage wars can lead to strange areas of unstable magic and odd mutations. This is best described in Terry Pratchett and the grounds of the unseen university and the ramtops mountains. Piers Anthony had a large area in the Xanth series where magic was unstable, leading to disorientation and worse. The same can be applied to more reality based stories, with the after effects of wars, ecological devastation, meteorite impacts creating a rich background. Magical portals are another feature much exploited in time travel novels, most often involving stone circles, but sacred groves are another used portal.
Another aspect to consider is the way people interact with the landscape. This goes beyond exploitation such as agriculture and city building, and into the emotional and spiritual connection of people with your World. In our world there are many examples you could use, from Celtic belief in a god or spirit of springs, Roman and Greek gods of pretty much everything, to Australian Aboriginal stories of the Dreamtime that helped them understand and remember the landscape. One fine fictional book that shows the depth of human and landscape interaction is Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Not everyone’s favourite read, but he weaves the landscape and the people’s ability to manipulate earth power into a tight epic work.
So a bit of basic reading is well worthwhile to give yourself a little knowledge of how our world and then your world works. What stories do your people tell of their land?