Friday, June 5, 2020

The Hard Way – Keeping a Series Bible...Or Not

Do you keep a “bible” for your series characters and stories? If so, what does it look like? What does it contain? Do you use a specific program or just Word or Excel files? What do you put in it, how detailed are you?

by Paul D. Marks

I wish!

If I did it would make life so much easier. But why would I want anything to be easier? Why do anything the easy way when you can with even more ease do it the hard way?

I have good intentions to do bibles for all my work. But just like New Year’s resolutions, which start out bright and shiny and perky on January 1st, by the end of January—or sooner, much sooner—they’ve mostly fallen by the wayside.

I’ve tried keeping bibles for various things, such as my Howard Hamm series of short stories that’s been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I have a couple of different Word files with various categories, everything from what furniture is in his house, and the layout of the house, to what gun he carries. I also started an Excel file. I made a chart in Word, distinct from the above-mentioned Word files. The problem is I don’t keep them up—any of them. I put a few things down then abandon the file, every time. So when it comes to the next story I have to go back to the earlier ones to see if X did or where Y lives, etc. And some readers remember those things a lot better than I do…

The problem is if you try doing a bible while you’re working on a project it slows or even stops the forward momentum. And you can’t stop writing, especially if you’re on a streak, to put X in the X bible category and Y in the Y category. If you do you might break your streak or forget where you were going, etc. So is it worth it to stop along the way?

And then, at the end of the writing day, when you could go fill in those blanks, well, who wants to do that? I’d rather be walking Buster.

That said, I’m working on the third in the series of Duke Rogers novels (White Heat, Broken Windows) and finding it frustrating to have to go back and look things up in the earlier books. You think you’ll remember everything but it’s really hard, especially when you’re working on multiple things at one time or have multiple series going.

I haven't read this book, but it looks like it might be good resource

It can be hard to remember what kind of gun X uses, what car Y drives, color, year—and that can change within a story, as where someone’s car gets blown up like Duke’s beloved Firebird in White Heat. So what’s he driving now? What cigs does Bobby in The Blues Don’t Care smoke? Viceroys. And Booker smokes Lucky Strikes. But I have to remember not to mix them up—which I did in the first draft of this post until I went and looked in the novel to verify. And Bobby drinks Bubble Up. What music does this character like as opposed to that one? Where does so and so live? If I describe his house/apartment this way have I messed up cause before it was that way? You can get mixed up.
Then there’s character arcs and relationships among characters—relationships that change. So am I picking up where I left off with that relationship? Timelines—same thing. And backstory. Habits, mannerisms, likes, dislikes. Physical details. Oh, how I wish I had a bible for these things.

When I started out I created forms (which if I can find any, since they’re from the old typewriter days, I’ll post here), some for characters and their backgrounds and descriptions. What they eat, music they like, etc. Some forms for rooms and how they looked. But I don’t do that anymore. I’m in too much of a rush. Too many things to work on—though that’s sort of penny-wise and pound foolish ’cause it would ultimately be easier to just look on a form or computer file. Now I mostly keep it in my head and often have to go back to previous stories in the series to get the details.

A sample character development worksheet
I write a lot my first drafts in screenplay format. And the script program generates lists of characters, locations, etc., that I sometimes transfer to Word when I begin working in it. That can be helpful, but becomes incomplete as I add or change characters in the Word version. And it’s also basically for a single story and doesn’t really act as a bible across several stories with the same character/s.

I believe Scrivener has a bible function. And I have a copy of Scrivener that I bought years ago. But the learning curve was so steep I gave up on it.

I keep thinking I should hire someone to do this, to make bibles for my various series. Easy job, you can work from home in your spare time—you know like those old ads at the back of magazines: Make Money Growing Mushrooms in Your Basement in Your Spare Time. Perfect for lockdown. Lousy pay. But if anyone’s interested…


And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care released on June 1st. I had my first virtual book launch party on Facebook and despite not really knowing what I was doing, it turned out pretty good. I want to thank everyone who came and everyone who bought the book. As usual, Buster seemed to get the most likes.

The Blues Don't Care was reviewed on and is short listed for their "Book of the Month."

"This story was a breath of fresh air, set in a familiar period, thanks to Sunday afternoon TV movies. Which means the author had to get his world-building right. The good news is - he did, and did it very well indeed."

I was also interviewed by Nancie Clare on her Speaking of Mysteries Podcast. You can check it out here.

And I did a Guest Blog on Stacey Alesi's where I talk about how important conflict is in creating characters. I hope you'll check it out here.

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website


GBPool said...

I do most of these things. I usually write a short biography of main characters, have a sheet listing all characters and a bit about them, and I maintain a timeline for most stories. I draw sketches of rooms and streets if necessary. What all this has allowed me to do is show that my Gin Caulfield character taught Johnny Casino the private eye business and also the new Chance McCoy character. They all know each other. And there will come a time when Gin Caulfield will have a story with the spies in my Spygame series. The timeline and their history is documented in all those records. I have created a world where all these folks live. I even wrote a book. The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook, that shows how to do all this. I even teach a class in this. When it works, it works.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. And I envy you your organization. I wish I had the patience to do that. It would make life and writing so much easier.

Here's a link to Gayle's book that she mentions above:

Jacqueline Vick said...

I use Scrivener, but I didn't find it a good tool for keeping track of those things. I discovered Plottr, which seems like it just may work. I've got my fingers crossed. Looking forward to the next Duke book.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jackie. And I need to get back to work on the Duke book.

I'd love to hear how Plottr works when you have a chance to play with it more.

Sally Carpenter said...

I have extensive notes on both of my series, which I keep as loose leaf pages in a 3-ring notebook (low tech). For my Sandy Fairfax series, I made a 3-page bio of when he recorded each album, his marriage and divorce, when his kids were born, his arrests, etc. Whew! In revising the Sandy series books, I found a glaring continuity error between books 2 and 4. Oops! That's why bibles are needed. In my second series, I have names of the town's businesses, street names, character relationships, notes on the spy agency and more. For both series I keep a list of character names to avoid repeats. Yes, it's work to stop and make notes during first drafts, but it pays off in the long run.

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, your examples make a good case for a detailed log of sorts. If I was as prolific as you are and wrote a lot of stand-alones, I guess I'd have to do that.

Paul D. Marks said...

I'm sure it does pay off in the long run, Sally. I wish I had your discipline in this regard. My intentions are always to do it but it always falls by the wayside.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. Funny you should say I'm prolific, I don't very prolific. Some people are turning out five or six novels a year. I don't know how they do it, but that's prolific :-) .

Jan Christensen said...

Hi, Mark. I struggle with the idea of a series bible, too. I'm pretty good about keeping track of characters, settings, and timeline when I start a novel. About halfway t6hrough, I'm apt to stop writing the timeline. I just don't like doing it, and rarely refer to it anyway. I force myself to stop along the way to put in details of characters and settings, though. Sometimes, if on a roll, I'll take the time when I've finished the writing session to work on the bible. Who said this writing game was easy? Glad we're not alone. (Please excuse any typos in this--the writing is too faint for my tired eyes right now.)

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jan. If you’re working on the bible when your writing session is through you’re way ahead of me. Sometimes I’ll make some haphazard notes, but I just can’t seem to be consistent with a real bible for anything. Like you say, who said this writing game was easy?