In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,
As you’re sitting down to write, you need to ask yourself: Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character, in this world, in this time?
There’s a lot you need to ask yourself before you begin your novel.
And there’s a lot of preparation you need to do, too, of course. Each writer embarks on a writing project differently, but when it comes to new novel, there are a few things you simply must do.
You should understand the expectations of the genre you’re writing in. You should figure out a schedule so that you stick to a word count every day until you reach THE END.
You should also spend a long time figuring out who your main characters are, what they’re all about, what they want, what’s keeping them from getting what they want, what their flaws are, how they might change throughout the course of a novel.
I’ve talked about how you don’t necessarily need to write a strict outline to a novel beforehand, that writing down every chapter and scene before you write the first sentence of your book can actually hinder your creativity because there’s nothing really to surprise you as you go about your writing days.
But knowing more than ever about your characters is a must. Get comfortable with their physical descriptions, yes, but also pay attention to everything else. The more you understand your characters the better the writing will go, I guarantee it. I’ve definitely learned this the hard way!
So figure out your characters, especially your protagonist, and then ask yourself another big question.
Am I writing a specific story that could only happen to this character, in this world, in this time?
Once you’ve figured your main character out, now you need to move onto setting and time period. This part might seem simple, might feel like you don’t have to pay close attention, but you really should.
Setting of course depends on the genre of novel you’re writing in. If you’re writing a science fiction story set not on this Earth, you’re going to need to spend just as much time with setting as you do with character. What planet does the story take place on? What aspects of Earth will we see and what aspects unlike Earth will be presented?
But funnily enough, sometimes it’s even harder to come up with a setting for a realistic literary story. You might be inclined to just use the city you currently live in. I’ve certainly done that before. You should ask yourself, though, what would change about your story if it was instead set in L.A., or New York, or a small town in North Carolina.
If literally nothing changes about your story, you haven’t put in enough work yet. There should be something specific about your setting that impacts your story, and how that setting impacts your main character!
Finally, you have to think about the time period of your story. Is there something about your story that makes sense to be told in the past? Five years ago? Fifty years ago? So many beloved and respected published novels are set in extremely specific time periods. Is setting your novel in 2019 your only choice?
Now, you shouldn’t ever just pick a random year to set your novel in if you don’t have a really strong reason for doing so. Don’t think you’re going to stand out just by setting your novel in 1987 instead of 2019. If you’re writing a contemporary story, then by all means, set it now, and make sure it feels like today, and not five or ten years ago.
But if the story you’re telling about a specific character and a specific setting would be better suited for a time in the past (or the future!), then, by all means, go for it!