World Building – a look at geography

I found an interesting article on world building at Well-Storied, which is run by Kristen Kieffer, a fantasy fiction writer. Keiffer breaks world building into geography, cultures, social classes, history, technology, and because it’s for fantasy writers, magic. Today, I’m looking at geography.

If you’re like me, geography is something you last actively considered in high school. It was never one of my favourite subjects and I had trouble fitting the pieces together into a meaningful whole. However, writing historical fiction demands that I bring geography into my novels as part of transporting readers in time and place – in other words, as part of building that historical world.

In essence, geography is the details of the physical world of your story – landscape, terrain, weather, borders, significant landmarks such as rivers, forests, mountains and plateaus, the natural resources that support the population, the sources of water available, and the climate.

According to National Geographic, “geography is the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” It’s an examination of “how human culture interacts with the natural environment, and the way that locations and places can have an impact on people.” The people, culture, politics, settlements, plants, landforms, and other aspects of an historical world are influenced by its geography.

Source Wikipedia – 1870 Map of Paris by Eugene Deschamps

What is Paris without the serpentine sweep of the Seine and its ultimate link with the sea? What is Scotland without its rugged mountains to the north and its lowlands to the south? What is South Carolina without its shoreline of beaches and its marsh-like sea islands? What is India without its monsoons and the staggering diversity of its landscape?

The Seine plays a role in my soon-to-be-published novel Paris in Ruins as do the bridges that cross it, the children who fished along its banks, and the boats that traveled along it bringing wounded soldiers back from the battlefield. Montmartre, a hill in the northern part of Paris that was once home to a small village outside the city’s walls is also featured. Camille Noisette, one of two main characters, walks that hill to spy on a radical group calling for the overthrow of the government. It’s a long climb that culminates in cobbled streets and narrow alleyways that twist and turn to accommodate the hill’s incline.

Climate is another part of geography. Is your world temperate or seasonal? Are the winters mild or long and dark? Is the sun bright and hot at midday? Does little grow in the rock-strewn land or is there an abundance of farmland to nourish people and animals alike? Do Horse Chestnut trees flower in April or does jasmine scent the air from late spring to summer?

The places where our ancestors settled and the way they lived were strongly influenced by the elements of geography. When geography is brought subtly into an historical novel, readers will be more deeply transported to another time and place.

More on world building in another post.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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5 Responses

  1. Absolutely right, Mary. And that’s one reason I include several maps in my NEW YORK 1609 novel. I don’t have maps in my Neanderthal series but am rethinking that. One of the benefits of independent publishing is that I can add (or subtract) after the initial launch.

    BTW, I instantly recognized the map of Paris as I used to live there as a young man. And I see that the 20 Arrondissements are already in place in 1870.

    Best of luck with Paris in Ruins!

  2. As a Geographer by day and historical fiction author by evenings and weekends, I am glad to see this. Geography is the key to narrative integrity and I have lost count of the errors I have found as I do my historical research because geography was ignored. My first two books had seven maps each and I include higher resolution versions on my website. There is a also a good bit of research out there on reconstructing historical landscapes, including the species of flora and fauna. I was so glad I read on the forest successions of New England before writing about the American Revolution as the 1775 landscape was treed in a very different way than today — no stone walls either, those came in the early 19th century for sheep. I even found one good site that could tell me the lunar phases on any given night, so I could accurately describe the moon (if there were no clouds) on any given night.

    1. That’s fascinating, Charlie. Hadn’t thought of the changes to flora and fauna. The site with lunar phases sounds like another great resource for those of us writing historical fiction! We strive so hard to be accurate – and it’s not just about which battle took place where 🙂

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