Mary Rosenblum, Long Ridge Web Editor, has published more than fifty short stories in multiple genres, as well as Science Fiction novels and a mystery series. She also teaches writing and conducts writing workshops. Her most recent story: Golden Bird appears in the January issue of Asimovís Magazine.
Finding Your Tracks
Organizing Your Fictional World
by Mary Rosenblum
Youíre on chapter nineteen, and you realize that your main character needs to drop into that candy shop you mentioned earlier Ė you know the one on Main Street. Only you canít remember if you put it between the dry cleanerís shop and the auto parts store, or next to the Dairy Queen. So for the next hour, you comb those preceding 280 pages, trying to find that first reference. Or you know you described the Third Rank Mageís powers earlier, and you canít for the life of you remember what exactly they were or where that came in. So you start hunting from page one.
Whether you write realistic fiction set in a real place and time, fantasy, or SF on an alien planet or future Earth, you are going to create a wealth of details specific to this story. As you write that first draft there will be many moments when you need to know what you did in an earlier chapter, and itís important to be consistent. If your character carries an oaken wand in Chapter Three, she needs to carry it in Chapter Thirty, as well. If you are working 9 Ė 5, or parenting full time, and only get to your writing at odd moments, it can be time consuming to comb chapter after chapter for that elusive reference. But the alternative is that cardboard box stuffed full of clippings, scribbled notes, and endless index cards. So. How do we keep track of all those critical details?
Every time you introduce a new character, beginning with page one, write down that characterís name, his or her physical description, and a brief description of their personality and meaning to the story. You can create a character file with your word processor, or use index cards and organize them alphabetically. Then, in Chapter Sixteen, when you run into Wendy the Witch again, you can look back and discover that she has green eyes, is about 16, and carries a spotted rat on her left shoulder. Sheís also a total rebel. (Youíd forgotten about that rat! Good thing you checked!) Itís a good idea to note the chapter where you introduced that character. If you change Wendy into Werner with a Koala Bear instead of a rat, you can start making the changes in the first chapter where that character showed up, rather than beginning with page one.
Keep the same kind of list for places, alien species, local landmarks (like that candy shop), and the like. If you suddenly realize that your character is going to enter the gatekeeperís hovel, and canít remember what it looks like, you can search for Gatekeeperís Cottage and find the details of building and furniture. You donít want sharp-eyed readers noticing that a thatch roofed cottage morphs into a brick bungalow during the story! Blows your credibility!
Link That Research
If youíre using research sources for your story: articles, Internet references, pictures, or what have you, itís a good idea to link them to their appearance in your story. If you use that Discover article on zebras in Chapter Three when youíre introducing your genetically engineered zebra-people, then note Chapter Three on your reference material. Sticky post-it notes are a good way to insert chapter references into a source if you donít want to write on the pages. Use highlighter pens if itís a throwaway copy. Use the same kind of reference link for photographs or pictures. If the old castle is drawn from that photo of a French chateau you clipped from Antique Lifestyles Magazine, then stick a post-it note on the cover and write down which building it portrays in your story, and the chapter or page where that description appears. If you need to go back and make changes, youíll know where to look, and if you visit it again, you have the picture right there to look at. Itís a lot easier to sift through a cardboard box of pictures and clippings if they have labels!
Keep a Timeline
I have had the disconcerting experience of having a character in one of my stories go to the bank, say, only to later realize that this is a Sunday, and the bank canít be open! Now I have to rewrite so that she can visit either a day earlier or a day later. Aarrgh! When you begin your story or novel, start a timeline on a sheet of paper. Personally, I use a roll of shelf paper, so that I can make the line as long as I want and scrawl in BIG letters! Today, at this opening scene it is when? Write it down. Every time you move aheadÖto tomorrow, next month, next yearÖwrite that event down on your timeline. You can do this graphically, with a line drawn longways on that paper, or as a list from first date to final date. Your character wakes up. Quick! Write it down: Jerome wakes up Tuesday morning. Discovers body in dumpster. January:New Storm King is crowned. February 12: Melinda gives birth to female heirÖ. If you do this from chapter one, you wonít have to worry about bank visits on Sunday, or a character whose son celebrates his two year birthday a year after heís born! Note the chapter in which each event occurs. Melinda gives birth to that heir in chapter six. Later, in revision, when you need to make a change about that birthday celebration, your timeline will let you go right to chapter six, instead of scanning through a hundred pages or more to find it.
Map It Out
If youíre creating a world, designing an orbital city, or setting your character down on the streets of Bend, Oregon, you need to get your landscape right. Draw yourself a map. When your character walks by Mageís Square and the slave market, mark them on your map. When he walks past chapters later, you wonít stick an iron mongerís stall in between. If youíre using the real world, walk the important streets and use a notebook or a hand held tape recorder to list businesses on each side of the street. Youíll get mail from fans after your book is published, praising your details, and asking you when did you live in Bend, anyway? If you write more than one story or novel set in this locale, youíll thank yourself a hundred times over for that map. If you donít have it, youíll be reading your earlier books for details, page by page! You can also use that timeline to rough out future scenes. Make a few notes about the scene on post-it notes, and stick them to the timeline where you think they fit. That way, you can get a feel for how your story will flow. The post-it notes make it simple to move scenes around.
Iím My Own Grandpa!
Do the math on your charactersí ages! If you have a character who is a drafted Vietnam vet for example, still bitterly feuding with his son who is a peace activist, work out the ages. Letís see. Son is forty-two. Dad is seventy. Son, to be forty-two, was born in 1960. But if Dad is seventy, he was born in 1932. That means he was thirty-four in 1968. And he got DRAFTED? Alternatively, if you tell us he was drafted in 68, and was 18Ö.hmm. That makes him a dad at 10 if Son was born in 1960! Donít just assign those ages because they are convenient or work for your plot! If you donít do the math, your readers will! Write those ages down on your character master list. Youíll need that number later, more often than not.
Create That Paper Trail
Creating this kind of solid cross-reference of character list, locale list, timeline, map, and labeled sources will help you enormously. Not only do they make it much easier to get back into your story after an enforced month of absence, but they are invaluable after you sell your story or novel. Once you have received that wonderful acceptance slip and the check, nothing much happens for a loÖ..ng time. You get involved in the next story. Then, if youíve written a novel, a list of questions suddenly arrives from your editor. ĎFix this, please! And right now!í Suddenly you are tumbled out of your current project and back into the first story. Only you havenít thought about it for nine months, for crying out loud, and your head is full of your current project. This is when that paper trail is worth its weight in gold. You can use those lists of characters and places, that timeline, to find your way quickly to crucial scenes, make the changes, and get back to work on that new story.
Coin of the Realm
Keeping track is worth it. All too often, time is the scarce coin in our writing lives. Save some of those golden coins for your new project by keeping good track of that last project! Write down those names and places!
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