A lot of story planning can start with setting. Depending on the genre, you could come up with a whole series worth of plots, just from making a map and figuring out what kind of people live in the world you’ve created. The setting can (and should!) be a character in itself. It can help or hinder the events of the story and provide major plot points. There should be a good reason that the story is set where it is. The tv show Dexter wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t set in Miami. Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in California. Imagine Portal without Aperture Science. Imagine Batman without Gotham City.
Holly Lisle has a lot of good writing advice on her website, and one of the posts that I’ve found useful is her article on developing the fictional world through mapping. In it, she talks about how to make a map and how to use that to figure out a story. This is great for fantasy or science fiction stories that are set in places other than Earth, but even more local stories could benefit from mapping out a city or town.
Obviously only a tiny fraction of your research is going to make it into your story, because you don’t want to deluge your reader with information. One of the fastest ways to get someone to put down your book is to hammer them with paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description about your country’s history and system of currency and notable citizens. Those are things you can sprinkle in the story when (and if!) they become relevant. It’s okay if you come up with an elaborate system of laws and then it never comes up in the novel. Don’t try to force it in just so you don’t feel like you wasted your time.
On the other hand, you don’t want to suffer white room syndrome. That’s when your characters talk to each other and occasionally do things, all while moving around in featureless white rooms. Your reader is going to need something to anchor the scene. Visual descriptions are good, but using the other senses can be better. What does the place smell like? Sound like? What’s the temperature? The great thing is that this leads right back to character. What does your character think of the smell/sound/temperature? Are they the kind of person who bundles up in the slightest breeze? Does the smell remind them of their grandmother’s cooking? Is it always too loud for your character?
Your characters are going to be physically interacting with this setting, and it’s going to effect them directly in ways they might not even be aware of. They could have adopted the social mores and local dialect without realizing it. Alternately, they could be an outsider to the setting and come up against hostility or uncomfortable misunderstandings at every turn.
One thing I like to do in novels is consider the season and the weather. It’s a cliche to start your novel with a description of the weather, but occasionally referencing what’s going on outside can help set the scene and anchor the story in time. Is there a heat wave? Is there a blizzard forecast for later in the week? Have there been weeks of endless rain? Is it perfect spring weather outside? Mira Grant’s book Deadline, book two in the Newsflesh trilogy, has a major plot point centered around a hurricane that was honestly chilling when it was introduced.
There’s a lot more you can explore when building your setting, including time period, technology, religion, fashion, music, economy, politics, and so on. Just remember two things: try to give just enough detail to be interesting, and make sure not to get so involved in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the story.
Next time: Themes