I usually look at earth for inspiration. That doesn't mean I copy straight off but in many times the earth will give you the idea that you can start working from.
I have been bothered with a question from on offline friend of mine. How do you get the inspiration for making a map? I have seen answers ranging from "I saw some maps on DeviantArt" to "A picture in my head saw the map in a dream".
How do YOU come up with your map designs? This isn't an opinion question.
With that question in mind, how do you define the shape of a continent/island/region? Is there a story behind its shape?
I've always made battlemaps for my DnD game so obviously for those the maps are generally story lead and I simply try and keep them interesting with varied terrain. I take from movies, books, pictures, anything that has inspired me and shape them into workable maps.
I've not made anywhere near as many world maps (probably half a dozen to date), but again I always start with a story; what happened in this world that makes it worth drawing? Then I throw down a rough shape (if the shape isn't important) and start adding major terrain and landmarks that are defined by this world history, again looking to the story. As often as not the shape of the continent isn't THAT important in comparison to it's features, but if you know that the southern part of the continent was involved in century long Mage Wars then that area can get pretty interesting If you want your Eastern border to have been invaded by foreign raiders then chances are you want another large landmass that these guys came from. Let the story define where the shape goes and it pretty much draws itself.
Sometimes needs dictate the shapes. If I need an island for instance , I lay down some blobs of land colors then use some cutter brushes made from "cloud" brushes to cut into the edges until I get some interesting shapes. If there is a back story it influences the terrain placement. The only full world map I've started was made like earth's Pangaea one continent then cut into four ragged pieces then moved and rotated apart. Then using the cutters method shaped into interesting shapes.
Lately because of the "Clouds" challenge. I look at clouds and run cloud PICTS through Photoshop looking for interesting shapes. The shapes are then built on and they help build story which helps further define where the terrain development goes and so on and so on !! Sometimes it is just a texture that strikes me as a interesting shape. (wet spot on concrete , pealed paint Clouds lots of clouds.
"Aye The skies be clear , the seas be calm and the winds be with us .....
ARGH!! but the damn compass be broken!! "
Capt. Noah Swalter Last voyage of the " Silver Crest"
Some times ideas strike me when watching TV or reading a book. At other times the players in my current RP group get into interresting situations, making me wish I had a map for just that situation. Usually resulting in me making one, even if chances are slim a situation like this will come to pass again any time soon, if ever. And as of late I try to anticipate my players' actions, asking myself "What might they do, could I use a map for it?". I have yet to guess rigth though ...