NaNoCoDo #6 Research

“Write what you know!” Every writer is given this piece of writing advice and every writer has those moments of, “Am I sure about that?” and has to check their facts.

I love doing research. Books, the internet, wherever. I start by looking up one detail and get distracted by an incidental fact (like another word on that page of a dictionary). And the next thing I know, hours have gone and I haven’t even answered my original question.

But I’m happy.

My biggest problem is that I love the research so much I find it hard to contain my browsing – but many writers hate fact-checking and their problem is motivating themselves to start! Whether you love it or hate it, it is important to check your facts, even for a novel.

I’m an evil reader. I’m the one who complains if a book gets something wrong. I’ve even been known to look something up if I’m not sure it’s right! Yes, I’m that pedantic. And I’m not the only one. If you’re tempted to write a fact you’re not sure about – just imagine that I’m reading it, with my inner pedant scrutinising every last detail. Yes, blame me for being picky, then you’ll be ready to deal with any normal readers who might spot the odd error.

Even with fiction. Your characters will be moving through an environment the reader has to recognise. Getting historical facts wrong will really wind people up – so will contemporary legal issues, police procedures, any science, – the list is endless. If you’re not an expert on a subject, then find someone who is.

Of course, accepted facts will change from time to time, so it’s hard to be completely certain about anything. But your reader deserves your best effort. And who knows? You may find you enjoy research as much as I do.

NaNoCoDo #5 World Building

Not just for sci-fi!

Beginning writers may assume that they don’t have to spend time working out the “rules” of their world. Only sci-fi writers need to think about World Building.

Not true.

You may be writing a book set in your own world and think that’s simple because you know it so well. But your reader doesn’t. If you hope to be read by people who live more than a few streets away, you must tell them about your world in enough detail that they know it, too. If your plot needs the rubbish to be collected every other Friday, then you need to mention this fact. If you have a character who’s a bullying prefect at school, then you must explain (before it’s relevant) just what powers a prefect has.

In other words, world building means preparing to tell the reader all about your particular setting in as much detail as they’re going to need.

Think about it – in a costume drama, TV viewers need to understand how servants below stairs and their employers above stairs would behave in their own world and when they interact outside their class. These things are shown very early in the film / series, so a viewer understands how this world differs from their own. In a police-based mystery, we need to know that our hero is on a ship cut off from his wonderful Forensics Department who could identify the killer from a blood spot in one hour.

As the writer, you will know all of this, but you may need to change the rules when you realise you’ve written yourself into a dead end you can’t get out of.

So write down the rules that apply to your world. Refer to them when you start writing and be prepared to add changes as you write. Always add them – don’t just edit your rules document. If you’re got lines at the end like:
Chapter 8: Need prefects to be allowed to go out on Wed afternoons.
-then you’ll know to check chapters 1~7 for anything that contradicts this rule.

Spend some time on these rules – you cannot assume your reader knows everything about the town you live in, and you’ll probably want to improve on reality, anyhow.

Then print this document out and go through it with a highlighter pen – so you know which bits need to find their way into your opening chapters.

NaNoCoDo #4 Second Character and Relationship

All the best stories have a central relationships, usually between two people and usually unequal.

Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin, Scarlett and Rhett, Doctor Who and …
It’s conversations and actions between your characters that let the reader know what’s going on. Whether that’s because we need Sherlock to explain things to the good doctor so we know what he’s thinking or The Doctor’s companion being held hostage so our hero has to rescue them and incidentally save the world from the Bad Guys. Or get the guy, or … ?

In many stories, the second character is the one the reader is expected to relate to. So Watson writes his memoirs about Sherlock Holmes, The Doctor (Who?) constantly has to explain things to his companion(s) and so on. It’s easier for the reader to relate to fallible human than the hero of the piece. Which means your second character must be likeable. One of the commonest mistakes is to have everything solved by the hero and their sidekick to be little more than baggage.

Or a squealing damsel to be rescued. Repeatedly.

So give your second character some thought. Write out a set of details as you did for your Main character. (
Decide which trait your reader will relate to and spend a few days getting to know them. Remember to work out what their relationship is to your hero – and what they want to get out of this adventure.

NaNoCoDo #3 Setting and Locations

Where and when is your story set? What’s the difference between setting and location? Why should I make any notes about these?

I use these terms to mean slightly different things. A location is a physical place, a setting is more to do with the mythology of your story.

Location first. You could use a real place or make something up entirely from scratch. It doesn’t matter – as long as you know it well enough to picture in your head. This is the time to draw maps / construct floorplans / collect photos into a folder. Whatever it takes. Get a clear image in your head and start writing details. Not just the appearance – engage all the senses. What can you hear? Can you smell flowers blooming at the particular time of year? And so on. Your reader wants to believe they are in this place for your story – so you need to go there first.

Settings. I often hear people confuse this with plot when they tell me they’ve got a great idea for a novel. The conversation goes something like this…

Stranger: “Hey – you’re a writer. I’ve got this brilliant idea for a bestselling novel. But I don’t have time sit and write it. Tell you what – I’ll tell you the plot, you go away and write it and we split the profits 50:50.”


Stranger: “Well, there’s this really clever device that was made centuries ago and the knowledge to make it has been lost. Except for a group of weirdoes who hide as some sort of cult and they’re really the powers behind all the monarchies and governments we thing are actually in control and there’s this really clever guy who realises…”


Stranger: “You see, there’s this kid and he’s really downtrodden and has to do everything his stepdad says and he’s really a special person ‘cos he’s got this magical… Hey – you’re not taking notes! Are you sure you’ll remember all this?”

Now, this isn’t a plot. It’s a setting. It’s the situation of a character at the start of a story. It’s background info and the reader doesn’t want to read it all! No, I’m not taking notes and I’m not about to split any profits with you. If you really think there’s a book in the idea, then write it for yourself. You’ll be surprised how many ideas go into a novel.

So – write a short back-history for your MC. Describe their situation and relationships to other people at the start of your story. That’s your setting.

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NaNoCoDo #2 Main Character

You’re gonna be spending a lot of time with your Main Character, so it’s worth making sure you understand them before you start.

Now, there are plenty of templates around for building a character, but I use a character sheet a bit differently – whether I’m writing for NaNo or working on a my next bestselling (*) novel.

I begin by writing only a few details about my character. I may not know all of these at the start, but that doesn’t matter!

Initial Character Sketch:
Role in Story:
Personality Traits:

That’s all I need at this stage. I add details as my writing progresses, so I’ll add “eye colour” to the Appearance section once I know. But I don’t need that at the start. I have to know what s/he wants, as that will drive the story – but there will be smaller details added as I write.

No-one else is going to see these notes, so they don’t have to be grammatically correct, detailed or intelligible to anyone except yourself. (But don’t make them too cryptic or you might have trouble working out what you meant!) I find it best to start defining a new character when I’m sitting on my own in a coffee shop or pub, writing scribbled notes in the A5 notebook that lives in my handbag. It’s almost as if I’m holding a conversation with someone and getting to know them as we chat. If you do this, remember not to actually speak your side of the conversation out loud – you’ll get thrown out if you’re not careful!

I wander round with my main character in my head a lot of the time. I find myself looking at clothes and thinking, “Hey – Chrystal would like that!” Only to remind myself she doesn’t actually exist. This is perfectly normal behaviour for writers. And I have my psychiatrist’s permission to say so. (**)

Spend some time with your MC and add a few details to their initial character sketch. Don’t try to write down everything about them straight away – you’ll do that as you get to know each other. Write down any anecdotes they tell you about their life – can be very useful. Like all good relationships, it takes time to learn to work together.

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(*) Hey, I can hope!
(**) Only joking, honest!

NaNoCoDo #1 Starting Blocks

NaNoWriMo Countdown 2013

Two months to November and NaNoWriMo. So where do you start?

Never heard of NaNoWriMo? Well, it’s short for National Novel Writing Month and it’s a really simple writing competition. You start writing a novel on 1st November and if you’re written 50,000 words by the end of the month – you win.

No-one reads it, no-one judges it, it’s purely down to word count.

Yes, you could cheat, but what for? There aren’t any prizes, just the happy feeling that you succeeded. If that’s what you want, you’re still welcome to join in – but why not try doing it for real? It’s free!

This blog is the first of a weekly series over September and October 2013. I’ll cover some of the areas you could be thinking about and even plotting on paper. The rules allow you to write character descriptions, plot outlines, anything you like so long as you don’t write any of the actual novel before November.

I’ve been ML (Municipal Liaison = co-ordinator) for Wales for, um, several years. Eight, I think. I’ve written at least 50,000 words every November all those years (some were over 200,000) and I’ve seen an awful lot of writers have a go at NaNo and many of them become winners. And a fair few failures, too. Hopefully this blog will help people prepare for the big month and WIN by the end.

So let’s start at the very beginning. I’ve listed a few questions to get you thinking about your 2013 Novel. Spend a bit of time thinking about each one, write down a few thoughts and see if anything starts to gel.

If you already know what you’re going to write, it’s worth having a go anyhow. You might just come up with a new subplot, or crystalize something about your characters.

What is your genre? If you reply with more than one, arrange them in order of priority. (Is the romance the main plot, or is it a minor romantic subplot?)
What sort of story is it? The 7 basic types are said to be: comedy; overcoming the monster; the quest; rags to riches; rebirth; tragedy; voyage and return. All stories are said to fall into one of these patterns.

What shape does your plot take? Simple one-track narrative or complex web of interlinking plots? Probably somewhere between those two. Can you draw it as a line or set of lines? Does the action go up and down in a few places?

Do you have any idea what will happen in the Beginning, the Middle and the End? No, you don’t need to know in detail, but it helps to have some sort of idea.

Right now, you’ll probably spend more time thinking about it than writing anything. That’s fine.

That’s what I’m doing this week.

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