I happened across this image somewhere on the Interwebs a while back and saved it to my flash drive, intending to write a blog post about it. Well, better late than never.
Indeed, there appears once to have been a time when a person could walk from north Africa to Italy without getting his feet wet. (Granted, the journey would take a while.) I think there is a deep well of setting material for the writer who is willing to do research on Earth's geologic history and craft a story that makes that setting significant. For example, using the map above, I imagine an epic tale involving a teeming city at the lower shore of one of the two halves you see of Lake Mediterrania. The city could be home to heroes and villains, a seat of power and political intrigue, and a thriving hub of commerce. Centuries could pass full of intense battles, heroic quests, strange visitors, mysterious guilds, and dynastic succession. As the ice age ends and the glaciers melt, the city could be swallowed by the sea. It could take on an historic, even legendary aura -- people might tell tales of this city, and boast of the treasures it holds, resting in ruins deep underneath the waves. It might be called... "Atlantis."
Okay, obviously you saw that coming. But what you might not have seen coming is just what becomes possible once you take that kind of story and make it the backstory instead.
Imagine another story. An empire has fallen and its former glory has faded. Great cities lie in ruin, broad fields grow wild and untended, and vast mines echo with emptiness. Pirates roam the coastlines and rivers, barbarian hordes rule the hills and barrens, and the wisdom of recorded history is preserved only by a few cloistered, sectarian groups. The only tantalizing signs of "the world that once was" exist in the form of eroding statues, abandoned bridges, and fragmentary monuments. The nation of Gondor is but a shadow of its former self, and the underground nation of Moria has long since gone silent. The Seat of Seeing in the hills of the Amon Hen sits empty. Mighty statues at the Falls of Rauros guard only untamed wilds. Majestic Ithilien in the forested eastern heights has all but disappeared, its capital city at Minas Ithil turned to a decaying Minas Morgul by the hordes of Mordor.
Of course, you know by now I am speaking of the fictional land of "Middle Earth," the setting for the epic story Lord of the Rings. Notice that I did not make even one mention above of the titular ring, or the Numenoreans, or the ageless Elves; of Saruman's betrayal and the rise of Isengard and the Uruk-Hai, or of the essential Hobbits and their daring quest. The major plot points of the book are driven by characters and action, as they should be. But look at the sense of wonder that the setting communicates all by itself, before any of the action even begins. Tolkien's intricate linguistics formed the basis for the characters' backgrounds and ancestry, but the setting is gave those characters a place to be; it gave those languages a place to live.
J.R.R. Tolkien built a world, and he did so by first setting the stage for how that world became what it was. It was a mammoth undertaking that consumed literally the whole of his life, as his son Christopher Tolkien has continued cataloguing the late master's notes and histories into new publications even today. It took Tolkien almost two decades after The Hobbit to publish Lord of the Rings, and apocryphal stories from the publisher say that Tolkien stopped dozens of times and began rewriting the entire saga from the beginning every time he realized he had not captured the essence of some facet of his story's world. Clearly, a compelling setting is a critical underpinning to a worthwhile story. In essence, if a writer cannot make a setting interesting, that writer has given the reader no reason to care about the fate of that settings' inhabitants. And now, it becomes clear that a compelling setting doesn't exist in an vacuum; a compelling setting requires a sufficiently-realized backstory.
I have a number of fictional works "in the oven," and have for years, and one thing I notice myself doing is going back for substantial revisions (or rewrites) every time I have a breakthrough about an environment through which I can send the characters and propel the story. And inevitably what I discover is that it's not enough to just send the characters to a place where the environment happens to be whatever is necessary to accomplish a plot point. It's not enough to send them on a trope roller-coaster to Vulcan or Hyrule -- or, worse, to such heterogeneous locales as Hoth, Dagobah, or Tatooine. A good story requires more. Not only do I have to send my characters (or birth and raise them, or see them die) in an interesting setting, but I must give that setting its due development to turn it into a place that lives and breathes on its own -- that imbues in the reader a sense of wonder -- so that my hero's journey and struggle against the vile overlord will paint itself in vivid hues across the broad canvas of my readers' imaginations. And this process will probably start with a map of Lake Mediterranea -- and I'll see where I can go from there.
Welcome, Reader! Turn the page, and the tale begins...