This post is more of a practical how-to than some of my more philosophical rantings.
That said, we should take a beat to consider the title of this post. Do you really need some sort of tracking system, you ask? After all, like most writers, you are living, breathing, and even dreaming your work in progress. We writers know the nuances of our characters’ moods, their physical descriptions, their foibles and skills, better than we know the eye color of our children’s teachers. How could we ever forget one single, precious detail?
I’m going out on a limb here and assume that I am older than you are. Also, I am writing a mystery series, a genre that, by definition, is highly detail driven. We don’t know one another well, but I am here to tell you an important truth that you can take to the bank: YOU WILL FORGET. You think you won’t, but you will. By the time you start outlining your second or third book, this absorbing new project will bury, if not erase, all those prior details from your memory. You’ll forget whether Brianne’s brother was three years older or four. You’ll forget Jake’s mother’s name, or what make and model of car Jake drives. You’ll change your mind about Sydney’s favorite color, then you’ll change it back. Then you won’t remember which color she told her friend OR where in the book she mentioned it!
And readers, bless them, will catch those mistakes and use them to nail you to the metaphorical wall.
So, let’s take it as given that you do need to track the details. Any time you name a person, place or thing that might have significance to the future events of your fictional world, you need to note it. And every time you revisit something, simply add to that original description. In a way, it’s just another form of cataloguing backstory.
My personal preference is Excel. While some may find the linear format limiting, I take it as a challenge to achieving brevity. Here is a screen shot of a workbook I call “Names Payments Swears.” (Yes, I have a running list of odd or unique swears and expressions my characters use. Ohio is funny that way. When I hear a good one, I add it to the list for a future scene.)
First thing you’ll notice is that I’ve got a series of tabs along the bottom, one for each book. This is a partial list from THE CODEBOOK MURDERS, the fourth installment in my series, releasing May 21, 2019. (For the purpose of this blog, which I am posting in early April, I deleted all the novel-specific characters, because there are all kinds of spoilers in the notes!)
Now take a look at this one:
This second list is from my current work in progress, tentatively titled “Poison Garden”. See how the first 16 lines are the same characters? Each time I start a new tab, I copy and paste over all the “keepers” from previous books, adding in any that have joined the party and seem like they are here to stay. When I create a tab for Book 6, I will ONLY copy and paste those characters that I want to carry over.
Below the keepers, I start adding all the story-specific players. In this case, we have the Vandergrath family, a caterer named Karen Kapekniak, and so on. None of these folks are going to roll over to another book. Nevertheless, they get a line here. And as I am drafting, I continue to add any critical details as I determine them. It saves so much search time later, when you cannot recall how tall you said someone is or where you mentioned it.
Each of my tabs’ lower 12-15 lines are filled with the characters that are unique to that story. If I ultimately decide to cut someone, I simply delete that line. I am constantly revising and updating the work in progress tab, just as I revise my manuscript. Whenever I am drafting or revising, this Excel sheet is open. Once you’re set up, it only takes a few seconds to keep the details current.
One final teachable moment here. Take a look at Line 5, Vanessa St. James, one of my keepers. You will note that I added more detail in POISON GARDEN than I had in CODEBOOK MURDERS. That’s because I’ve delved deeper into Vanessa’s backstory in this new novel, giving her more skills and attributes. Her brother Dmitri (Line 4) has been a character since Book Club Murders, my first novel. However, I never mentioned his exact height until Book 5, so I added it to his grid line here. In fact, Charley is my main character, and I never pinned down her height or her birthday until now, either! Those details just never came up.
But now that they have, they are “canon”, a word Dictionary.com defines as “established or agreed-upon constraints governing the background narrative, setting, storyline, characters, etc., in a particular fictional world.”
Your job, as the creator of your fictional world, is to be a good steward of your canon. If you do, you’ll save time and ensure a consistent universe. If you don’t, your readers will find out. And, believe me, they will let you know.
I am a writer and teacher of writing. After a lifetime of attempting to squeeze writing into my busy life as wife, mother, Scout leader, teacher, and far too many additional hats to list here, I have achieved my dream of being published and becoming a 'real writer'. How did I find the time? In this blog I'll share some of my strategies for having it all--and still getting dinner on the table by six.