I don’t plan when I write. At least not at length. I’m a pantser and proud of it. That leads to surprise when writing, and ideas that come over you in eureka-esq moments that remind you why you’re spending your days chained to the keyboard. One downside to being a pantser, though, is that you often forget how important the little details are, and once you do realize, it usually requires work to go back and add them in.
Case in point is the time I had the first book in my YA supernatural series assessed and one of the comments from the editor involved her stating that I should “plan the town for clarity”.
In my head, I knew all about the forest-lined town where my characters were living, including the main locations where the majority of events happened throughout all four books. It was so ingrained in my mind that I didn’t realize it wasn’t translating to the page.
The editor suggested making a map, so I got out a pencil, paper, and ruler, and set to work thinking about how easy it would be. It. Was. Not. The places you see in your head are on another level when plotted on paper. This small town full of general directions and locations mentioned in passing between characters was very different when I had to squeeze it onto a map. Suddenly the quaint Main Street shops were too far from anything, and the high school was too close to the hospital, and the abandoned industrial area was only a stones-throw from the local hangout, which needed to go at the back end of town because of events in the last book, but also had to be near the hotels at the front end because of events in the second.
As well as failing to nail down where these locations were in respect to each other, I had neglected to add character to even the smallest ones. I’d referred to a place used by two characters as “a sandwich place on Main Street” instead of giving the cafe a cool, less generic name. In later edits I started calling it “The Cheese and Grill”, which automatically turned it into an actual place you’d want to eat at (Mmm, grilled cheese), and made it as real as a fictional cafe can get, which is what you’re aiming for when writing about a made-up town.
The towns, places or worlds that characters live in might be created in the writer’s head, but they’ve got to be felt in the reader’s heart. They need to be as relatable as possible. The reader needs to connect and see the town as if it’s the place they live, somewhere they can (figuratively) walk the streets, just like your characters, regardless of whether your town is real-word based or seeped in fantasy.
So don’t go down my road and fall into the trap of thinking the places your characters live and work are just background and less important to the main story. Planning their world and making it real is an important aspect of writing a book and should be treated as such. Plan the town—and leave the pantsing to everything that happens inside of it.
— K.M. Allan