I get a lot of positive comments about my maps and while I do enjoy making things my readers really like, I must confess that my maps are as much for me as they are for my readers.
When I want to know how long it will take Stephenie, Henton, and Kas to travel to the next city, I can pull up the map and measure the distance. When I want to describe the terrain, I can look at the map and get an idea if the land would be rocky or swampy based upon the features I have drawn. When I want to know if my beloved characters are traveling through hostile lands, I can look at the borders and get an idea for what kind of political issues might be a factor.
Yes, I put a bit of thought into those details before I drew the lines of the map, but the map helps to record those details and later provide ideas for things I had not considered. For example, Midland was the only country on the map that has borders on both the Sea of Tet and the Endless Sea. Based on that fact, I concluded that Midland held significant strength with regard to trade and so therefore it should be a fairly wealthy country.
Salzen, a couple of countries to the north is landlocked and has a mountain range along its northern border. As a result, Salzen is far less populated and the lands near the mountains are more arid and sandy.
Having the map available not only provides my readers with a frame a reference (and many people do enjoy having maps) but it provides me with a way to keep my world consistent in my writing. It also gives me insight the struggles the people of my work may face.
I have always been fascinated by maps and love looking over old documents that contain even just a crude drawing of someplace. Even as a kid, I would crinkle up large sheets of paper and soak it in tea to create something with the appearance of old parchment. Then I’d create maps that I could use to find buried treasure in the woods at the end of the street. Later I learned the acid in the tea would destroy the paper, but it was great fun as a kid.
History can be a great source of inspiration when creating a map. The social and political pressures that shaped our own world’s borders may also be occurring in your world. I have found great enjoyment and numerous ideas from shows like How The State’s Got Their Shapes. The factors that created the borders for the United States can often be lifted directly into your fiction (sometimes because fact itself is stranger than fiction).
I have been working on my maps for years. I started with graph paper and pens. But a few years ago, I moved my work into Photoshop, which has helped me produce materials that are useful for my readers, as well as myself. However, even if you do not have tools like that, don’t let it stop you. Pick up some paper and get you ideas down in a visual form. Having a map will really help to frame your world in your mind and when you truly know your world, that will allow you to make the place where your characters live clearer for your readers.