Mapping Your Territory

Many writers are heavily influenced by their surroundings. Even if they don’t set a book in their own city or town, they’re likely to incorporate things they see or overhear, bits and pieces that can be transposed and repurposed according to their needs. When the town itself becomes the setting, such influences can be even more pronounced.

Some writers think they need to live somewhere exciting to mine their surroundings, but that simply isn’t the case. Even authors who are intimately acquainted with the largest, busiest cities on the planet turn to the less frequented corners of their space for fresh inspiration. Small towns can fascinate readers who live and work in high rises; farms and fields interest residents of concrete jungles. Every place has its own rhythms and pace, secrets to share or to hide away.

Author Geoff Nicholson is a Brit living in Hollywood, but his writing focuses less on the glamour and more on the city itself — the streets, the citizens, the interesting architecture. In the video below, he walks his neighborhood and observes, and those discoveries may or may not make their way into his work.

Try wandering your own town or neighborhood, or else drive somewhere nearby that’s less familiar and give it the same treatment. Don’t get too caught up in writing anything down while you wander. Maybe take a camera, or just use the one on your phone to take a few quick shots for visual cues you can refer to later on. But really look around. See with a writer’s eye. You never know what might come in handy.

More NaNoWriMo Prep: When and Where

Welcome to the next stage of preparation for NaNoWriMo participation. If you’ve been following along, you’ve got a protagonist with some sort of goal, and something major standing in their way. Where do you go next?

The key to NaNoWriMo is that you need to prepare yourself on two fronts, at least if you’re seriously looking to bang out part or all of a workable first draft of a novel. You want to produce something that serves as a stepping stone, not something that discourages you or makes you want to throw out your idea altogether. But you also want to hit that word count: 50,000 words by the end of November. Even if that doesn’t constitute a completed first draft — published novels for adults weigh in at 80,000 words and up, with few exceptions — it will be considered sufficient for the purposes of NaNo scoring. Your finished product on November 30 might actually need another few chapters before you reach your story’s end, or alternatively you might have a very loose draft that resolves your plot points but needs plenty of filler to flesh out the manuscript.

Preparing ahead of time means that, while the words you type in November might not be golden perfection streaming effortlessly from your fingers, they will at least be working in the right direction. You want to come up with 50,000 words that help your story start to take shape. So the next thing you want to prepare is a setting to go around your protagonist.

Chances are you’ve already thought about this at least a little bit. Who your character is and what they want — and often the obstacle making their wishes a challenge — affect setting greatly, so you likely considered things like genre, place, and time period over the past few weeks while you were coming up with your protagonist and his road block. But now is the time to really flesh out those concepts, and determine what might require a little research.

Many writers do some preliminary research before they begin writing a book, especially where information might be necessary for plot development. If you only know a little about criminal law, but you’re writing a thriller that involves a murder, chances are you’ll have to do some leg work in order to make sure your twists and turns are viable. Likewise, if your character works on a boat and you’ve only gone sailing once, you probably have to read up in order to make his or her actions and activities feel realistic and plausible. Writing about war? What weapons come into play? Is this modern warfare ¬†with men in tanks or foot soldiers wielding rifles with bayonets?

It is, of course, possible to get mired down in research, and so often writers set themselves a specific research goal and then fill in smaller details once the writing gets underway. However, with NaNoWriMo, you’re writing against the clock for an entire month, and the last thing you want to do is pause mid-stream to look something up. For NaNoWriMo, you’re better off doing more research up front so you don’t need to take away from writing time once the starting gun goes off. This has the added benefit of providing you with lots of information to write about, helping to up your word count. It can get pared down during the editing process later, if necessary.

Will you still come across details that need to be filled in while you’re writing? Of course. But once November starts, try to avoid research unless you really cannot move forward without the information. Instead, insert some filler enclosed in brackets so you can easily find your place once December rolls around, make a note so you remember to go back and tackle it, and keep on writing.

So this week, start making lists of details for your story. Where does it take place? Real world? Imaginary? Combination? How much of that place will you use in your story? A planet? Country? Town? Estate? What is the time period, and how does that affect your story? Daily life? Transportation? The work people do? How your protagonist can go about the business of achieving their goal? Consider careers, clothing, food, education, technology, forms of entertainment. Remember that in past centuries — even past decades — many activities took far more time than they do now, which can heavily influence the timeline of your story. Likewise, in the future, we can assume certain aspects of life will have continued to speed up, such as air travel and forms of communication.

Whether you’re writing an epic fantasy, a WWII-era mystery, or a contemporary love story, the world of that novel needs to be described for the reader and brought to life, and your characters must inhabit it in a realistic fashion. Use this week to dream up your own vision of the world you plan to share in your NaNo novel. Happy writing!