One of the greatest challenges writers face is keeping our story material straight and organized.
This whacked me upside the head when I started working on my latest project. The book is the fourth book in my Riverbend Saga series. Why am I writing a fourth installment you might ask.
I wondered that myself. The third book was released four years ago, and I thought I was finished. The storylines were all wrapped up and, without giving a spoiler alert, I thought all the characters were settled.
Let this be a lesson to you all—be careful when you create strong-willed characters. They are fantastic in the story. They move it forward as they pursue their goals. Tension and suspense mount because as the reader, you’re caught up in the adventure with them. It’s all great.
But I discovered a downside. These wonderful characters can turn into nags. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. One of my strongest, and most popular, characters in the Riverbend books is Rachel. Feisty. Spunky. Determined. Smart. Loving.
At the end of the third book, I wrote she might possibly be pregnant. A kind of happy ending for her and Michael.
Well, Rachel had other ideas. For the last year or so, Rachel has been reminding me periodically, with a finger jabbing my chest, and sharply spoken words: “You left me pregnant!” At least once she said, “Even elephants aren’t pregnant for as long as I’ve been pregnant.”
So, book four was birthed—yes, a definite pun intended.
After completing five or so chapters, I discovered my memory of the first three books is not as sharp as I thought it was. I couldn’t remember character names or descriptions. The layout of the town was fuzzy. I had to stop and research my previous books. Kind of embarrassing.
Here are some of the things I’ve done to keep it all straight. I pray it may be helpful as you organize your own writing projects.
I’m a pantser. I don’t outline. I follow a story idea through my characters. I listen to them. After all, this is their story. I’m just the scribe. They lead me on the journey of their story. I encounter their challenges and victories, their emotions and their dreams as they do.
The first thing I did was create a spreadsheet where I listed every character in every book. I marked which books they were in. I added a brief description of who they were and where they fit in with the main characters.
Scrivener is my main writing software. I appreciate how it keeps all my background information on the same screen as my manuscript. For me, the two most important tools in the software are character sketches and setting sketches. A third equally important tool is the capability to track the plot and timeline. All are very helpful for quick reference.
The character sketch contains more information than my character spreadsheet. Plus, the sketches are unique to that book. I record physical descriptions, motivations, relationships, goals, and other information I might need. I’m only using a spreadsheet because I’m tracking numerous people over several books.
The setting sketch helps me keep the variety of settings in the book clear without having to build a whole lot of stuff from scratch. It’s really kind of fill in the blanks. And you can add your own blanks if you need to. With it I can track the different towns involved, the settings in Riverbend itself, and even a character’s house or ranch.
It took me about nine to ten hours to establish these resources over the course of a few days. Less than a week.
Now, the writing is flowing smoothly. My characters continue to surprise me and challenge me. But it’s good to be working with them again and listening to them tell a story much better than I could ever imagine.
So, that’s how I’ve learned to keep things straight. This same system works on stand-alone novels as well as series.
What are some things you’ve learned about keeping everything straight while working on a project?