Whether you are creating your own fantasy world, or leading the reader through part of the real world that the reader might not know well, or even at all, keeping the geography present is both troublesome and full of pitfalls.
Many writers will be tempted to begin with lengthy descriptions of the world, or the general area where the action takes place. An omniscient narrator’s voice can get away with this, and it is often worthwhile.
If you use strong points of view, you can’t do this. And you have to be really subtle if you want to sneak the exposition into dialog or internal monolog.
Dark Lord Bob knew that his territory stretched from the Divine River in the north to the Stinking Bogs of the south.
This is clumsy and obvious. Don’t even go there.
Many writers will be tempted to include a map. Opinions differ as to whether this is a good idea. “Opinions differ” is a polite way of saying that this is a significant source of flamewars. If the writer wants to develop his skill, he should not draw a map. Tolkien has maps because his world was originally a thought experiment in the development of imaginary languages. No, really, it was. Many readers will take pleasure in pondering over a map, but only once they have read the story. Others will take pleasure pondering over a map whether they have read the story or not. Others will decide that the book is not for them, merely on the basis of the presence of the map.
Because it tells them that they have yet another fantasy world to learn.
Here’s the thing: having no map will only discourage readers who read your book and are confused over the geography as a result. Having a map, and having readers confused over the geography unless they consult the map regularly is just as much a failure of storytelling.
A good fantasy world is accessible without a map.
But a beautiful and simple map can enhance the pleasure for readers. If it is there as an aid, it is proof that you need to re-work your geography.
Use this in multi-book series. Each book introduces a new part of the map, and maybe uses a familiar place in a previous book as a startpoint or anchor. Limit the action to as small an area of your world as you can in each book. This way you can gradually build up the world. This is especially valid in fantasy, SF and fairytale/historical settings. Each book can then apply any of the methods suggested below.
24.2.2 Make the geography irrelevant
This works well in fairytales, and fantasy where questin’ is involved. You can do it by keeping the journey on a single line; A to Z via each letter in the alphabet in the proper order. In general, this is good advice for storytelling. If a character has to go back for something, or off on a tangent (whose consequences do not affect future events), then the storyteller has made an error. This is as true in a kitchen-sink drama as it is in retro Sci-Fi.
Locations that are big and vague are good, too. The Dark Forest and the Haunted Mall are both places you can wander without a map or any need for one (unless that’s the point, in which case it's still the characters, not the reader, who need a map).
24.2.3 Radiate from a central point
Lots of writers use this without thinking about it. It is very sensible. It can be as simple as your character’s home, or his home town. It can be a device, like the Hell Mouth in Sunnydale. Either way, the action always starts and ends there - and movement radiates from there. This way, readers won’t even bother to try to place other locations relative to eachother. They only matter relative to the home location.
24.2.4 Be a hardcore Storyteller
If some of this looks like cheating, then you can, if you really want, go for developing your storytelling mojo. No maps, no tricks. This ties in slightly with my belief that real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.
I'll say that again, just in case you think I don't mean it.
Real storytellers are always omniscient narrators.
You have to know the geography of your setting better than you know your own home. You have to be able to go for walks there, overfly it, undermine it. You should be able to look in any direction from any location and describe in detail what you see.
The more detailed and accurate your knowledge of your setting, the less you will need to describe and explain it to the reader. The internal consistency of each of the instances where you make reference to the locations will gradually build up a picture of the geography with only as much information and detail as each reader wants.
Doing this takes time, effort and (most of all) retelling. If you don’t retell, you won’t learn enough about your own creation to be able to narrate it.