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How to Keep Track of All Your Novel’s Details

[1]Please welcome Jim Dempsey [2] back to Writer Unboxed today! Jim is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and works as a book editor at a company called Novel Gazing. In his own words, Jim tells us that:

‘I’ve been editing for a little more than 20 years, gradually making the shift from nonfiction to fiction, which is where my heart really lies. After a few years, I was so busy editing novels that it made sense to pool resources with another two editing friends, and together we set up our own company called Novel Gazing. That was in 2012, and although I have continued with a few nonfiction clients, I spend most of my time editing fiction for publishers and self-publishing authors. I enjoy the challenge of fiction, making sure all the pieces fit together to make a perfect whole.’

You can learn more about Jim and his services on his company website [3], and by following him on Twitter (@jimdempsey [4] and @novel_gazing [5]).

How to Keep Track of All Your Novel’s Details

I recently worked on a story that had two Mondays in the same week. When I pointed this out, the author was so embarrassed to have made such an obvious error, but it’s a simple mistake to make. Raymond Chandler apparently forgot to reveal who killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep, and one character in The Iliad was still around to witness his son’s death even though Menelaos had killed him much earlier.

It’s those minor characters that are usually the problem. The little details. You know your main characters perfectly, you can see them in your mind’s eye. But was her mother born before the war or just after? Did he meet his first wife when he was a freshman or was he already a sophomore?

Editors have a similar problem when they start to work on your book. They don’t know anything about your characters, the world they live in, who did what or when, but they still have to keep track of it all. They have to be able to point out that John, who had a bad limp in chapter 3, is now escaping over back-yard fences like an Olympic hurdler or remind you that the witness spoke with a heavy British accent when she was first interviewed but sounds more like a Southern belle when the inspector revisits her later in the book.

Keeping track of all of these details and idiosyncrasies is essential for the editor, and it’s useful for authors too to make sure your characters, settings, style, and backstories are consistent.

Avoid confusion

Having two Mondays in the same week and other issues with your story’s timeline in particular can be time-consuming errors to correct. It can mean that everything after that blip gets knocked out of sync too. And a simple find-and-replace to change every Monday to Tuesday won’t work as you then have to change every Tuesday to Wednesday and so on, plus check for every mention of ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ and ‘day before’ too.

More importantly, a disturbed timeline can confuse readers: ‘I thought the murder happened on Monday, but now she’s saying today is Monday.’ It’s enough to make them drop your book to pick up another. Or worse, leave a scathing review.

It’s especially important to be on top of the timeline in stories if your story doesn’t run in a strict chronological order or you have several or alternating plot lines. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to easily keep track of your novel’s timeline.

One way is to use specialized software. Many of you will have heard of Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php) [6], which was specially developed for long-form writing. As well as a word processor, the program lets you order your story with index cards on a virtual corkboard, and it comes with a detailed outlining feature.

If you’ve got a more complex storyline, perhaps a saga spanning many generations or a series covering the lives of multiple characters, then you might prefer Aeon Timeline (https://www.aeontimeline.com [7]). It’s compatible with Scrivener—you can drag and drop documents between the two programs—and has a feature that will alert you when a character appears to be in two places at the same time. It will even work out your characters’ ages as the story progresses.

Other similar software for novelists includes StoryMill (http://marinersoftware.com/products/storymill/ [8]), Storyist (http://storyist.com/ [9]), and The Novel Factory (https://www.novel-software.com/ [10]). These all have features to track your characters, plot and timeline, and have some version of the corkboard and index card arrangement.

You have to pay for these programs, and you’ll have a bit of a learning curve before you’re working fluently with any of them.

Keep it simple

A simpler alternative, of course, would be to use an actual corkboard and index cards, or a large whiteboard. Or stick pieces of paper on the wall, providing you have understanding housemates if your timeline ends up stretching a little too far.

A more discreet alternative, if you don’t want to flash your novel’s specifics to everyone just yet, is to use a spreadsheet program like Excel or Numbers. But a table in a Word or Pages works just as well.

When I start editing a new novel, I set up a series of spreadsheets to keep all the details of the timeline, characters, and settings together. When I come across a description in the text, I make a note in the relevant table.

For example, my character description sheet has two columns, one for the character name and one column for the description. If I read something like: ‘Lynn combed out her long, dark hair and put on her glasses to finally read the note,’ then I add the name—Lynn— and the description—long, dark hair; glasses; shortsighted.

Over the course of the novel, I build up a picture of Lynn with the other details I come across: lives on the fifth floor; buys a flat latte every day from Stay Up Latte.

I do the same with descriptions of locations in the novel. For example: Stay Up Latte—two blocks from Lynn’s apartment; on the corner; best carrot and hazelnut cake on the north side.

The timeline table needs a few more columns. I find it useful to have a column each for the chapter number; time/day/date; and notes. If the point of view shifts in your story from one character to another (like in Gone Girl, where the chapters alternate between Amy and Nick), it’s a good idea to include a column to cover that too.

Compiling your own tables—however you do it—will give you more control over the details of your novel, maintain continuity throughout, limit the number of errors in your book, and help you avoid time-consuming revisions later.

It’s also another good way to procrastinate while still feeling productive.

How do you keep track of your novel’s details? Do you have any tips for maintaining continuity over the course of a novel or even a longer series of books?

About Jim Dempsey [11]

Jim Dempsey specializes in detailed analysis and editing of novel manuscripts through his company, Novel Gazing [12]. He has worked as an editor for more than 20 years. He has a master’s degree in creative writing and is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Jim is fascinated by the similarities between fiction and psychotherapy, since both investigate the human condition, the things that make us uniquely human. He explores this at The Fiction Therapist [13] website. If you have a specific concern with your novel, send an email to jim [at] thefictiontherapist.com, or visit the website to ask for a free sample edit.