Organising facts and details in your writing

by limebirdlizzie

I started writing a new novel at the end of last year, around November time. I’m a fantasy/horror/romance genre writer (combining all three in my novels) and I find it immensely difficult keeping all my facts and details in order and consistent. Especially in the fantasy genre where there are different worlds and creatures to keep track of as well as characters and places they visit.

I always find myself wondering what eye colour I’ve allocated to a character and what happened when and where. Getting all these details right and keeping them consistent (so that the eye colour of a character doesn’t keep changing throughout the story for example), is difficult.

Very early on when writing a new novel, once I’ve established it a bit and I know that it’s going to be completed rather than abandoned after the first couple chapters because it isn’t going anywhere, I invest in a lever arch file, some dividers (usually a lot of them) and a nice pad of paper.

Using all of this I make notes of important facts and details about my characters, the places they visit, family links and anything that I might need to refer back to at a later date to ensure that the story, especially long and complicated ones, can remain consistent. I’ve even been known to draw up floor plans of houses so that rooms don’t jump about all over the place. If it’s clear in your mind as a writer than the reader will understand it a lot easier than if you’re confused about it.

In my opinion there is nothing worse than realising you’ve made a mistake and having to read over 90,000 words or so to find and then correct every single mistake you’ve made in regards to hair or eye colour, it can be a long and tedious process. (I have had to do this before, believe me it is a right pain). That was when I started keeping files upon files of details to hand, all divided up and easily accessible when I need to check a fact.

It’s also useful for keeping the reels and reels of back story that never make it into the novel as well as rough sketches of ideas and plot lines. Often I think up scenes that I want to add into the novel later, so those will get written down and added to the folder to be referred to at a later date, when the novel is ready for them.

Of course the file doesn’t have to be a paper version, it can be stored on the computer but I have always enjoyed having a paper version to flick through and refer to. Even though it does take a while to write everything down after it’s been added to the story.

Having these files, whether virtual or paper means that if you use characterisation as I detailed in my first post about the Grand Trio then information like that can be added into the file as well, all being used to built up the identity of your characters. If you are particularly artistic or know friends that are, you can even put in sketches of your characters.

Overall it keeps your writing organised, consistent and flowing easily, meaning you don’t get bogged down with worrying about who did what and when. It also looks at what features you’ve given them when you’re trying to establish the plot and get to the pivotal point of the story.

This technique can be long winded but it works for me and the genre of writing which I prefer and write all the time. It may not work for everyone but it is worth giving it a try, especially if you’re like me and you struggle to remember all the important details dotted around at various points within your novel and want a quick way of looking them up without having to go back over your work looking for it.

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33 Responses to “Organising facts and details in your writing”

  1. Lizzie, do you use specialist writing software? Say like Scrivenor? Paul

  2. I tend to like having a paper copy rather than everything on the computer or saved to a disk. There’s something about seeing the files/notes/clippings, in the flesh so to speak. I want to put my hands on it!

    • I’m the same. I’ve filled a whole lever-arch file on my latest novel just on facts and details and back story! I love flicking through and adding to it.

  3. Very organised! I’ve recently discarded a novel that I spent ages working on for various reasons, but I have promised myself that I won’t embark on the next novel until I’ve planned and organised my characters and plots. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Scrivenor, although I can really see the appeal of your paper version – just like I adore the practicality of my kindle, but nothing beats the feeling of actually opening a paper book.

    • I have a kindle also but you’re right, it’s a lot better to have an actual book in your hand. I tend to just start writing and as my character develops within the story I note everything down in my file so I can look back later and build upon it. As it starts to build up you add more and more than isn’t yet in the book and you end up with so much detail about everything. Of course this is just how I prefer to do it, it works well for me. 🙂

  4. Scrivener is the software I use for writing and it has built in templates for characters and settings. I use these to keep my facts straight about the various details.

    http://www.literatureandlatte.com/

    Great software and only $40

    • I’ve heard about it but I really prefer having a paper copy to hand (yes I will admit to carrying around my very large folder of facts and details everywhere I go while in the middle of a novel). It’s a similar thing to having a kindle, the software itself is fantastic but I much prefer a paper copy! 🙂

    • Gillian, I agree. Been using it now for about 2 months and couldn’t think of writing without it. I also love the automatic backup of files and data. Paul

  5. I do the same thing, but in A5 tabbed notebooks. (£3.50 from paperchase, I think I like them a little bit too much!)
    I always seem to forget something though & end up scrolling through 100,000 words to check it anyway!

    • I always try to write down every little detail that might need to be referred to later in bullet points. I use dividers (a lot of them) and folders because I can add as many pages as I like to each section. Though I must admit its very heavy to carry around!

  6. Often it’s the long winded methods that keep you in touch with your novel. I find if I take time to record notes I pay more attention to detail when writing, and although it may sound a bit silly, I feel more connected to my characters. I keep an A4 pad to write stuff down on, but my main method for keeping tabs on details is Microsoft’s OneNote, a great tool for organising pretty much anything and once you get the basics of how it works it really does become indispensable.

  7. When I first started reading about writing, I looked at Jim Butcher’s blog (because I like his work and, hey, he wrote out how he does it!) at http://jimbutcher.livejournal.com/.

    His take is quite similar, except that for all the major characters, he does a sheet on the before writing. As I recall, it’ll have looks (eye color, hair, build, etc), any characteristic “props” for the character (e.g. Harry Potter’s glasses), and other details.

    I don’t recall what, if anything, he said about other characters as they pop up, but I think he might do sheets for them as well. So, if somebody’s neighbor pops into chapter 2 with a package delivered to the wrong house, they don’t turn into somebody else when they return in chapter 14 wanting a cup of flour.

    In either case, I’m not nearly so organized, but I’ve at least got some of it somewhere.

    For those cases where you have to go wading through all the text (because you now realize that your character absolutely MUST have green eyes but they’d been blue), don’t forget about the “find” function in Microsoft (Ctrl+f). If you are looking for blue eyes to become green, you can search for blue and change what you need to.

    Nice post Lizzie.

  8. I know there is software to tackle this problem, keeping details straight. But if you are as computer-challenged as I am, the task of learning said software is a huge job in itself. A divided file (if that’s a lever arch file?) that fans out accordian-style sounds like a very good idea!

  9. Ah that is one of my downfalls as a human in general – being organized. I went through this pain with my NaNo novel, granted I was just pounding away at the story without thinking about it. I realized that my first paragraph was something about this kids 13th birthday causing all this turmoil, then by the time I was done he was 18 and graduating from evil mage school and that is when the turmoil started. I also had a magical horse that I mentioned once and then never touched on again that I had to go back and add in.
    I can definitely see how all that back story and just files of information would be really handy.

  10. I love this idea so much. I’m in the process of writing my first book, and I think I’ll try out some of these techniques to see how they work for me. I know from experience that I’ve had an idea that I never wrote down that I wanted to fit in later, but since I didn’t make a note of it, it was lost in the reccesses of my brain. Mistakes make such great lessons so much of the time.

  11. I like having the paper notes, too. They’re just easier to reference while doing the computer part. Another thing I think I’ll do is use posterboards so I can write out things in a linear fashion on the wall near the desk for quick reference. Will do that as soon as this first round of rewrites are done as I’m reading through it again.

  12. That’s really organised, impressive! I think with fantasy you do need to keep a track of everything, helps when you go back to revsie. Good luck with your story!

  13. I get some pictures, just off the net, of people that look vaguely like I imagine my characters. Same hair colour, same eyes, etc and print them out, putting them on my cork board. It helps to have a visual and then my eyes don’t change colour half way through the MS – Unless I want them to. 🙂
    I do the same with setting, houses, landscapes.

  14. I usually write with a person already in mind, like George Clooney for a character so I know how to write him. There is a websit I came across once and regret not saving it, but it has templates for writing which include characters, settings, and important facts, and timelines. I could really benefit from the timeline. I am always getting that one screwed up.

    • I’m with you – I lose track of the timelines too, especially as the story gets more complex. I had started diagramming the timeline, but it got out of control. 😦 A computerized version would be perfect, whether software or online.

  15. I’m not a professional writer, not even published, but I would be scared that a digital version woudl be lost or deleted. This is also true of a folder, maybe even more so, but I would be the one to work on something for weeks only to forget backing it up away from the main computer. I lose pieces of projects all the time.

  16. I was using large index cards in different colors to keep track of different subject matters and characters in my book, but they quickly became unwieldy and I didn’t have enough room on each as more interactions and backstory came along. Your idea is a great one – I happen to have a lot of notebooks left over from college with unused paper – I think I’ll use different notebooks for different areas I need to track in this book. Thanks for the helpful hint! 🙂

  17. Love that idea. It also gives you a chance to get away from the computer (if you mainly type your novel/story/screenplay/poem) away from typing and give yourself a break with pen and paper to recharge.

  18. I think I need to draw the floor plans of my protagonist and get a lot more in depth with my notes. Thanks.

  19. Great post.

    I too try and keep organised. The way that I do it is to have a separate Word File with pages for each character, specific settings (e.g. a floor plan of a spaceship) etc.etc. I also cut and paste any web research into the same file (including pictures).

    That way, it is just an alt-tab between my novel and my notes file.

    Oh and Masquerade Crew, I had a real scare last year when I hadn’t backed up for ages and my laptop died (I managed to recover everything – eventually!). Now I have a free Dropbox account and all of my writing lives in my Dropbox folder on my laptop. That way it automatically backs up whenever I am online (which is most of the time!)

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