Now that I have a bunch of cool ideas to expand from, one part of the world-building process I am most eager to deal with is map-making! However, maps are quite tricky in the sense that
- they are necessary to ensure consistency of the story
- they set rock-solid constraints on the stories I will be able to tell
Clearly, while these are just the two sides of the same coin, the first point tends to favor including maps early in the process, while the second recommends to wait as long as possible to keep my options open.
One additional point is that map-making is a long process and it is desirable to limit the number of iterations needed to make it consistent with my story.
In a bottom-up approach (i.e. world design is based on suitability with the story rather than the opposite), what are the essential features of my story that I need to have laid out before starting the mapping process?
EDIT (this be will updated based on comments)
For the purpose of the question you may assume that
- the story is set on a single planet.
- the placement of natural features (mountains, rivers) should be roughly self-consistent (i.e. no river going upstream or splitting into two) ...
- ... but I am not concerned about how the features came to be where they are (e.g. if the story needs a volcano here, I am not going to deal with the formation of the volcano, ages before the story settings). In short the map should be plausible as far as the timescale of the story is concerned, but geological times do not matter.