NaNoWriMo’s Almost Here: How to Get Your Story Ready

Last year, I wrote about doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) during the COVID-19 pandemic. And here we are again in 2021. But this year we’re all a bit more ragged after 19 months of the pandemic.

Last year, I tried plantsing: the liminal space between plotting and pansting (as in, write by the seat of your pants). As a planner in normal times, someone who prides myself on my intense organizational skills, it was a challenge. So was the writing. NaNo 2020 started with the Presidential election in the U.S., which was—to put it mildly—very stressful. I wrote 50,000 words. Incoherent, garbled, pants-y words. Then I stopped. When I hit the magic 50k words, I wrote a bunch of bullet points about what else needed to happen.

I picked the draft back up in January. To my relief, it wasn’t as terrible as in my head (Isn’t that always the way with first drafts? Parts are terrible, but some aren’t!) I’m sure everyone remembers the trauma of January 2021, so suffice it to say, that editing didn’t go well. To make a long story short, I finished the first draft and two rounds of edits by the end of March (an objective edit followed by a copyedit using ProWritingAid, an AI editing software).

I won’t bore you with the details of trying to write during yet another summer of no summer camps and limited play dates, but I polished up the draft and got it out to beta readers. Initially, I wasn’t planning to do another NaNo (I’ve done it the past three years), but as November neared, I changed my mind. I find the community and accountability helpful for pushing me to the finish line.

Choosing the Right Story

One reason to prep, even if you’re not inclined, is to figure out if your story has legs. A kernel of an idea may never pop, so thinking through the trajectory of the story could help decide whether that story is the right one. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting a few thousand words in before realizing the story has nowhere else to go.

Another conundrum is deciding which story of the many you have floating around in your head is the best one to tackle for NaNo. I had two stories I felt drawn to and had already done some prep. To help me decide, I did a high-level outline of both, and in doing so, one story called to me more than the other.

What’s needed other than an outline?

In my experience, two things help solidify the project before I even write: character and world.


Although the story is central, I can’t wrap my head around it until I know who’s populating it. Character development—of at least the main characters—is the first thing I do.

Because I write historical fiction, I need to research period-appropriate names. The first thing I do is pull out my genealogy research. Sometimes I’m basing characters on a real person, which makes it easier. For other characters, I go to the time period I’m working in and see what names pop up that are interesting to me. If nothing fits, I turn to history books. Flip through and see what names resonate.

If your setting is the US, census records are online. If you’re setting your story in other places, check historical documents or birth, marriage, and death records (hatched, matched, and dispatched, as an Australian friend once said)—most of those are available online. Finally, google. I may search “common female names 1450 England” or “common surnames Channel Islands 1500s”. Likely, someone’s already done the research; you just need to figure out which name sounds right to you.

Character development is a personal thing. Some people like to get to know the character as they write, like you would when you first meet someone. But I want the characters woven into my thoughts so I know what they would do in different situations, how they would react.

My favorite resource is One Stop for Writers from the creators of the Emotion Thesaurus (and several other useful thesauri). Other helpful resources are Dungeons and Dragons character building websites (there are many; google it and use the one that fits you best) and The Novel Factory’s guide to personality traits (including Myers-Briggs and Enneagram). I also use several books to help build a psychological profile including:

  • Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey
  • 45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
  • Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein, PhD
  • The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

When I talked about this in my writing group, some people’s eyes glazed over. This method sounds intense, but I use these as a guide to get to know characters. I rarely refer to them much, if ever, but do this work so I can picture them in my head. Their reactions and actions come more naturally as I write them.


For some stories, this will matter more. Science fiction and fantasy require deep dives in world building, and many other resources exist to help guide writers in those genres. For historical fiction, world building means research. Further, you often realize what you need to know when you’re in the thick of the story. Thus, you need a bit of a prep and a bit of grace once you’re writing.

So far, all the historical fiction I’ve written is set in time periods I already know something about. So my prep includes some research about certain details of history and the world I know will come up. My NaNo project for this year is set in 1910 New York City, so I’ve been looking through Sears Roebuck catalogs from 1909. That helps populate the world with what’s around my characters. Pinterest is also a great resource, and can help you make a world building mood board with the images.

Inevitably, things will pop up once I start writing that will require research. If you’ve never done NaNo before (or if you’ve done it and haven’t finished), one key to success is to keep moving forward. That means no editing as you go and, to the extent possible, no stopping to go down research rabbit holes. When I hit one of those bumps, I notate and move on. For fact checking, I type FCK. When I hit a speed bump, I type TK with a note about what needs to be done (e.g., if I need to describe a building as it was in that time period, I’ll type TK – describe building). When I’ve finished the first draft, it’s easy to search for those two combinations (they don’t appear in English words). This frees my brain to keep moving ahead.

Getting ready for November

With my characters, world, and outline, I’m ready to hit the ground running November 1st. The earlier in October I do this, the more time I have for research. I recognize I lean far into the planning mindset, and this may all sound like nonsense to the pantser. In a recent historical fiction virtual chat, one author said if she outlines something, in her mind, she’s already told the story so there’s no reason to write. I recognize everyone’s different. Hopefully, some initial planning can help make NaNo go as smoothly as possible for you—whatever amount you’re comfortable with.

As a last note, I recommend engaging in the NaNo community. If you don’t have writer friends who are also doing NaNo, finding a community to buck each other up when needed and support each other through the triumphs can make the entire experience better.

Please tell me what’s worked for you or if you have other areas you need help with in prepping for NaNo. Good luck to everyone!

Photo credit: Nick Morrison/Unsplash

Published by katezerrenner

I write non-fiction environmental work, mainly climate change, energy, and water, with a heavy focus on policy. I also write historical fiction. In addition to writing, I work as a policy advisor at the State of Texas. Previously, I spent over a decade at Environmental Defense Fund, where I led EDF’s multi-year campaign to influence and enact state and national energy and water efficiency policy. I led the state legislative team, testifying before the US Congress and Texas Legislature. Prior to joining EDF, I worked at the U.S. Government Accountability Office analyzing U.S. action on climate change and the voluntary carbon offset market; SAIC, on climate change projects for the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and U.S. Department of Energy. I have a Master’s degree in International Energy and Environmental Policy and Economics from the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a Master’s in Comparative Politics from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and a Bachelor’s degree in European History from the University of Texas

2 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo’s Almost Here: How to Get Your Story Ready

  1. I think outlines are pretty important, but like you said, character matters too. And for my next novel, I’m going to make sure I have my characters fleshed out before even starting, because if I don’t prep for them, I’ll end up just winging it the entire novel, and that sucks.

    Liked by 1 person

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