Tuesday, January 31, 2017

I need a memory jogger

By R.J. Harlick

Do you use a story “bible” to keep track of your characters, locations, etc.? If so, how do you do it, in Word, Scrivener, spreadsheet, scribbles on scraps of paper, etc? What “sections” do you have in your bible? 

Heavens, a “bible” sounds far too organized for me, a committed pantser. In fact, this is the first time I’ve heard the term. But I will admit after eight books in the Meg Harris mystery series and a memory that can barely remember what I had for breakfast, I realized I needed to keep track of nitty gritty details in something other than my mind. But I’m afraid I am far too unsophisticated to use a fancy software package. Instead I make notes as I go along in Word, the same word processor I use for writing.

Having learned my lesson with the first several books, when I found myself having to go back and create lists half way through the writing, because I was forgetting characteristics like eye and hair colour, ages and sometimes even names, I now start building a character list at the outset. But since I don’t know how many and who they are when I begin writing, the list gets populated as the characters pop up in the story. In addition to descriptive characteristics, I also like to include the part of their backstory that matters, their role in the story and their motivations. I even do this for Meg and Eric. But these aspects are fluid and can change as the story unfolds, so I find myself continuously updating this character list.

I also have a problem with names for secondary characters. I am forever changing them, either I forget the name I gave the character six chapters earlier or I decide it doesn’t fit.  I use the list to help me keep track of the names.  But it doesn’t prevent me from having to do global replaces to ensure the old name doesn’t crop up in the final version, which has been known to happen. I was going over the final proofs for the first book, Death’s Golden Whisper, when I realized a name hadn’t been changed. And this after rereading the text I don’t know how many times. Even my editor hadn’t caught it.

I will also generate other types of lists depending on their importance to the story.  In my latest book, Purple Palette for Murder, members of several generations of an extended family play key roles in the story. I was having difficulties keeping track of them, so I created a family tree, complete with birth years, in order to keep their ages and names straight and their relationship to each other. I also highlighted those bits of their backstory that were pertinent to the story.

Timing also became important for Purple Palette for Murder, so I generated a time chart complete with actual dates, even though these dates never appear in the story. I did it in a table format and highlighted the pertinent activities that take place on that date. By doing this I could assure myself that when the story indicated that something happened a couple of days or a week ago, it really did take place in that time frame and didn’t conflict with other events.  

For most of my books I have created another sort of list, the chapter outline summarizing the main events for each chapter.  Because I don’t outline at the outset I create this chapter outline as I go along, usually after ten or more chapters have been written. During the writing of the first draft, I rarely go back and read what has been written. Instead I use this outline to help me keep track of what has happened in the various chapters. It has proven its worth many times over. I also use it to note where I will need to make changes in the second draft.

I also maintain one other “bible” and that is the one for the series. At about book 3, The River Runs Orange, I realized I needed to start keeping track of common items, such as the setting, so I wouldn’t end up having a town in the first book being a thirty minute drive from Meg’s Three Deer Point home and a forty-five minute drive in a later book. Though I never reference the actual time period between books, I like to have a rough idea myself of the span of months or years so that references to earlier events are consistent in their timing, such as the number of years Meg has been divorced, on the wagon, etc. These I maintain in the series profile along with a variety of other aspects, including characters that span more than one book. I also have a floor plan for Meg’s Victorian cottage to ensure that the various rooms are always in the same place and a rough map of her property and the Migiskan Reserve.

Wow. Now that I've written all this, I realize I am more organized than I thought. I do maintain a "bible". And I tell you, I need it.


Paul D. Marks said...

RJ, I think your journey to the realization that you do use a bible is a fun revelation. I'm always saying I need to do one, but I make a few notes and then let it fall by the wayside. But one of these days...

RM Greenaway said...

New Years resolution: follow R.J.'s lead. My lists, maps, notes, timelines etc would be great, if I could find them. Major spring cleanup coming.

Terry Shames said...

Groan. You are so much more organized than I am. I'm with Paul. I start out with good intentions and then....(plop). I need a "helper elf."

I once decided to change the name of a main character. Did a global change--and then remembered that I already had a character by that name. Had to go through and claw out the duplicates.