NaNoWriMo: Environment

As we gear up for NaNoWriMo, I’m putting some thoughts together of how I conceive of a story.  Hopefully these ideas will generate some inspiration for you as you go through your writing process.


Before digging too deep into plot, I also like to think of the environment the story will be told in.  Although the core idea of your plot will not change based on environment, the setting is the key to delivering context.

I will bow to those who decide that they want to develop plot before environment.  However I caution you that if you’re going to do it that way – sketch out a rough plot first, don’t go too far with it.  If you go too far with the plot first, then you may limit the environments that the plot would work in.

There’s an interesting example about reusing the same plot, but putting it into different environments.  Consider the book/movie Emma.  Did you know that the movie Clueless is actually nearly a carbon copy of the same plot?

They took the same structure, and changed the setting.  In Emma, the plot takes place in renaissance England.  In Clueless, it’s valley-girl L.A.

You may see this as an argument to develop plot first – but to me, there are some serious changes that need to be made to make the plot work in one versus the other.  You may decide to start to develop environment and plot in parallel.  One may highly influence the other.

For environment, you should start to look at these basic questions:

  • What time period is it?
  • Where does it take place?
  • What sort of people live in that place?
  • What are the societal norms there?
  • How do people love?
  • What do they do for work?
  • What do they do for play?
  • How are typical family groups structured?
  • What is the government like?  Politics?
  • What is the physical environment like?  Temperate?  Desert?  Tundra?

Your character is going to navigate through this world, and so you really need to understand it before you can write it properly.  I even go so deep as to think about the five senses:

  • What do you see when you look around?
  • What does it smell like?
  • What kind of sounds do you hear?
  • What does it taste like?  This may not seem to apply, but have you ever heard the expression ‘There’s a foul taste in the air’?
  • What does it feel like?  Is it a hard environment, soft?  If your character falls down, will they hurt themselves?

One of the most successful examples of environment that I’ve ever read is Harry Potter.  Fan or critic, everyone who’s read the books will agree that the environment is described in so much detail that it seems to be alive.  Everything from the people that are walking down the street, to the weather, to the things they drink, it’s all there.

Whether the environment or the basic plot came first, there are plot elements that are uniquely tied into the environment.  What is it like trying to get to Platform 9 3/4?  How are the character navigating around Diagon Alley?  What do they see?  What does butterbeer taste like?

If you’re writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, then there are a lot of elements to answer here.  If you’re writing historical, it’s a matter of backing it up with appropriate research.  However there’s a difference between gathering reference, and describing your environment in such a way that it comes alive.  You should walk a fine line of making this seamless, and going on for ages with long-winded environmental descriptions.  I would argue that The Lord of the Rings, still one of my most favourite book series, is a bit long-winded on its descriptions.  If you find yourself scanning, or wanting to flip to the next page, then don’t bother.

Rather than trying to describe the environment itself, try to think about how your environment will affect the character in that scene.  That way, you can work it into the scene itself instead of simply setting the scene up.

Using a Reference Window in Scrivener

Using a Reference Window in Scrivener to collect your research

To help me envision the environment, I often gather plenty of reference, and do lots of research.  This is one of the reasons that I love Scrivener as a writing tool – it gives me a convenient way to gather together all my reference, research, and templates together in one place.  That way, I can constantly refer back to these things as I’m writing.  If I need to, I sometimes pop open a reference window with an inspirational image, to help me visualize some key character, environment, or element from that scene.

Hopefully this gave you some ideas!

About L. V. Birdsong

I am a writer, and love writing both Gay Romance and Science Fiction novels. I love whiskey, have 2 cats, and love to read!
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