Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Keeping track

by Dietrich Kalteis

I have to go along with Robin, a story bible and spreadsheets sound a bit too organized for me. I don’t write a story outline, but I do create a reference sheet for my characters. I keep track of details like backstory, physicality, age, where and how they live, things like that. At the start of a story, I drop a character in the scene, and at that point they’re still pretty wooden. And as I work through the first draft, the characters get fleshed out and develop. Once I get to know them, then I don’t need to refer to the sheet that much.

And I have a habit of rethinking scenes and details as I go, and I often change a character’s name until I feel I’ve got it right, and the character sheet helps me keep these things straight. Nothing worse than attributing something to a character that just doesn’t fit and getting a note from an editor pointing it out.

When I’m away from my desk and I think of something I want to work into the story, I write myself notes. Bits of paper usually litter my desk until I work them into the story, then they get balled onto the floor where they provide entertainment for my cats. 

Other than that, I write a one-page timeline toward the end of the story just to check the sequence of events. And I keep a folder for scenes or chapters that get cut. I used to think I might use the discarded scenes somewhere else, but I never have, so now I just toss it all out when the story’s done.

House of Blazes is set during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. For this one, a lot more research was needed than the three previous stories which are set in present time on the West Coast. At first, it was a bit daunting, knowing Google wasn’t going to be like one-stop shopping, but I really enjoyed doing the research. I learned a lot about some interesting times and places as I worked my way through and organized a mountain of archives, period maps and photos, and endless personal accounts. Aside from keeping what I needed in a file, I expanded on the one-page timeline to keep the story events running true to the path of the real events.

The next couple of stories I wrote are historical as well but didn’t need as much research. The timelines are back to being simple, and I just used them to check the sequence of events: Zero Avenue is set during the early punk rock scene in Vancouver and will be released later this year, and Poughkeepsie Shuffle is set in the mid-eighties and revolves around gun smuggling between Toronto and upstate New York. It will be out sometime next year.


RJ Harlick said...

I forgot about those cut scenes. I also set them aside in case I find a place for them later. But like you, Dietrich, I've almost never used them. Good post. I enjoy reading about the variations in our approach to writing. There is no 'right' way. We do whatever suits us best.

Unknown said...

I'll take any course you may someday teach on researching for fiction. Just reading Triggerfish I can see you're a pro. Historical fiction must be even harder because of the discipline you need to take what you came for and get out of there fast, before you get sidetracked :).

I keep my best outtakes in a folder, because sometimes it's interesting to go back and look at those paragraphs/chapters that have been removed for whatever reason. This file can be crazily poetic, and freeing too, because nobody will ever read it but me!

Dietrich Kalteis said...

You're right, Robin. There's no right way, it's what works for each of us.

Paul D. Marks said...

Dieter, it's fascinating to see how everyone approaches their work. But I guess it's whatever works for us as individuals. Though I do keep trying to find a program that will do a bible. But I also know I'd probably never stick with it.