A good fantasy novel isn’t complete without a believable fantasy world to go with it. Arguably, the depth of the world and how well you “build” it is more important when writing fantasy than it is in any other genre. Most genres can use real locations which makes describing the world easier. You can always use Google or visit the location of your setting for most genres, but fantasy worlds come from your imagination and must be well developed so your reader can visualize the landscape, towns, wildlife and so on.
A good starting point for creating a fantasy world is a map. Your map does not need to look like you have studied art and cartography for twenty years. You can always hire someone to design a map later based on your sketches. The important thing is to get a physical reference of your fantasy world for reference when you are writing.
Sketch the map on paper as best you can and keep in mind boundaries are important. The distances between towns and the types of terrain will add depth to the story and provide additional obstacles for your protagonist to conquer.
The distances between locations your protagonist may travel to need to be realistic. If they have a magic carpet or a flying steed, things might need to be higher such as on a mountain. If people in your fantasy world travel on horseback, do some research and figure out how long it will take them to move from place to place and add terrain and weather into the equation. A horse, for instance, can walk about 4 miles per hour. The United States Cavalry says a horse can travel about 30 miles per day on consecutive days, but if the horse can travel almost twice that far if they have a few days rest in between trips.
Creating a fantasy world is a lot like telling a lie. The closer the lie is to the truth the more believable the lie becomes. Draw on the real world we live in to create terrain, towns, cities or villages. In the real world deserts and forests need to be in particular climates and adding the same sort of realism to your world will make it easier for readers to believe in the world.
Sketch the layout of towns, villages, ruins, castles and any other elements that have structures associated with them. Plan where everything will be and how far it is from the city gates to the castle or whatever structures exist in your city. Where is the blacksmith? Is there a poor side of town or a crafting district? Is there a tavern? Make a detailed map of cities and it will help you when you’re writing any scenes that take place in that setting.
Maps, if you decide to include the maps in your fantasy novel, help readers really dive into the world you have created. Having a physical reference makes everything more believable and many readers will want maps in the end anyway.
Creating a fantasy world before writing a fantasy novel is almost a requirement. If you’re not a planner, keep notes as you write in case you need to create a map later. Your readers will thank you.
Putting all this together seems like you’re adding a lot of work to your novel, but you’re not if you consider how realistic a map can make your world and how much easier it will be to write with a physical reference of where everything is located. I find creating maps of fantasy worlds to be fun. You may find it fun if you try it, or you may not, but you will find it helpful.