What to know before you start your novel

Some writers approach every book with characters first. Other books flourish from a plot or a world the writer has been inspired to create. I personally approach every book differently. The first Nano novel I ever wrote started with a race of fairies that lived on the moon and grew from there. A couple of my novels have been inspired by role playing games and began with the interesting characters I created. One even came to me fully formed in a dream.

No matter what you’ve got to start with, there are some things you should make an effort to know before you start your novel. Some of these are necessary, some aren’t, but all will make your life easier.

This is what I make an effort to know before I begin any novel:

Genre– The genre is probably the first thing you should know, as it dictates almost every decision from here on out. I don’t have a proper plan for Nanowrimo this year, but I know I want to write a fantasy novel. Once you know your genre, even if you have nothing else, you can find inspiration by reading books in that genre or brainstorming around various genre tropes.

Climate– What kind of climate your characters live in will make a huge impact on who they are. Different climates make for different cultures, and you need to make sure your characters and the world they live in are realistic. If you’re writing in a climate totally unlike your own, take some time to research how people survive in those climates and what cultures have thrived there. If you’re creating your own culture, you want it to resemble real world cultures enough to be recognizable, and if you’re working with a culture from our world, you need to honour that culture and portray it realistically.

Main Characters– You should have an idea who your main character and main villain are at the very least. I like to have names for all of my major characters and an idea of what each one looks like and thinks like before I start. Try to get to know your characters as well as possible, because knowing them well will make your life far easier.

What they want– In the end, what drives your story–or at least makes it more interesting–is what your characters want. It’s important to know what those things are and what measures your main character will take in order to get them. Try to know this for as many characters as possible, because the best conflicts are created when characters want different things.

The main setting– You’ll probably want to have a bunch of settings, but you want to know the name of where your main characters live and what kind of place it is before you start. Knowing where you’re starting will give you a basis for creating the rest, and you want to know as much as possible about the main setting(s) as possible.

Common local religion– Most cultures in history have been deeply shaped by religion, so it’s important to know what religion the locals follow and what religion your main characters follow. Small traditions bring out the realism in your world and religion can be a great source of plot twists. Once again, it’s a really good idea to study different religions so you can make yours as realistic as possible.

How it starts and ends– I like to know how my novel will begin and how it will end before any writing happens. Without those two things, I tend to get stuck, though I usually leave myself a lot of wiggle room in the middle. You don’t need to know every detail of your beginning and end–those will come out in the writing, and possibly change drastically in rewriting–but you should know the gist of it. Most importantly, you should know the feeling you want people to walk away with when they finish your book.

With this knowledge you will be adequately prepared to write a rough draft. Especially if you plan to write this during Nanowrimo, you can expect things to change along the way and to learn about your world and characters as you go. Even if you don’t know any of this now, that’s okay, because I’m going to walk you through the process of preparing everything you’ll need to dive right into that first draft, from getting your first idea to writing the outline–and I’ll be building a novel from the ground up with you.

Come back Friday to learn about combining elements to create a novel idea–and about where you can find some free ones online. But first, share your thoughts: what do you want to know before starting your novel on November first?