What methods do you employ in your novels to keep to keep your characters and timelines, as well as scenes and events, straight? How do you make sure when you give a character green eyes in chapter 3 that you didn’t give her blue eyes in chapter 30, or that you don’t have your villain driving a ’98 Ford Explorer in one scene and a ‘98 Ford Expedition in another? My personal faux pas was when I used my daughter’s middle name for a character. Sometimes I spelled it, “Aileen” and other times, “Eileen.” And of course it was my daughter who pointed it out. I hope she’s forgiven me.
We all have our methods of tracking characters and timelines. What is yours?
Here is how I did it in one instance, and, in part, how I do it today.
The second novel I finished was just over 200,000 words. I know, I know; too long for a new novelist, but there it was. Anyway I had numerous characters in two different time periods, 44 years apart. It’s a time travel, after all. Some characters appeared in both times, 1943 and 1987, plus there was a back-story on one character that reached back to 1914. There came a point when I kept losing track of when my characters did things. Let’s see, when did Nate first meet Hitler and then save his life? 1922? As I write this I cannot remember, but all I would have to do is go into the closet behind the winter coats and the old suits which I’m sure I’ll be able to fit into one day, and behind the dress Navy whites I know will come in handy eventually (it’s only been 27 years), push aside three pairs of shoes from a different century, the bowling ball (Pull it out of the bag to see if my fingers are any fatter; it’s only been 31 years), poke aside the two dead spiders and kill the live one, and then lay my hand on the rolled up, squished, dented and coffee stained timeline diagram I created somewhere around 2002.
Since the few dollars here and the couple of dollars there that I received on my three published novels barely kept my wife and me in fast food once a month, I needed to keep a day job. (I’ve since retired) That job happened to be as a graphic designer and desktop publisher. At the time that I was working on the novel that contained Nate and Hitler, Before Anne After, I was in charge of the wide format (poster) printer for my employer. Since I had the skills and the equipment, I built a timeline, printed it out on the wide format and tacked it to the wall over my desk at home. Presto!! My characters and timelines in my face. It was three and a half feet tall and five feet long. I left enough blank space that I could pencil in new characters. To do this last part I would spread it out on the floor, thus the reason for the coffee stains, or was that wine? Smell . . . lick . . . taste . . . yuk! Not important.
Now that I have the poster spread open, when did Nate meet Hitler and save his life? It was . . . you’ll have to read the story . . . Before Anne After.
The wide-format characters and timelines printout solved only part of my “keep things straight” problem. In addition to the poster, at the end of my working word file I maintained a Glossary of characters. I work in MS Word and use styles and the document map (like an index) to navigate my novel-in-progress. Each of the chapter numbers is listed in the document map. If for some reason I want to return to chapter 12 all I have to do is click on it. In addition to numbered chapters, I maintain other chapters, one of which is called “Characters.” In here are listed all my major and minor characters and their attributes. If a character suddenly reveals to the protagonist that he hasn’t gotten over his son dying five years before, I add the son to my list of characters (even if he never actually appears in the story) along with a description of his death, and then add appropriate details to his father’s attributes.
In addition to “Characters,” other supporting chapters are “research” (primarily made up of web links where I’ve conducted research) and “ideas” (bits of scene ideas that I might use later, usually just a line or paragraph). In the sequel to Before Anne After, titled Time Will Tell (to be released later this year) are supporting chapters titled, “Irish sayings” because there is an Irish character who likes to quote Proverbs (there are nearly 40 proverbs stored there in case he should suddenly need one) and “British slang” to support several British characters.
I hear it already. “I’m not a desktop publisher and figuring out Word is a nightmare.”
That’s why I’m asking for input from other writers. I do admit that the huge timeline was probably a bit of overkill, but at the time it did what I needed it to do. I have since better organized my supporting chapters and am meticulous, almost, at keeping it up to date.
Again, what is your method of tracking characters and timelines? Post-it notes on the wall? A 3-ring binder full of descriptions? Comment to this post and I’ll share it with all.