Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Housework ... It's Never Done

By Sue Ann Jaffarian

I hate housework. And just as washing a kitchen floor or doing laundry are necessary evils that cannot be ignored for long, so too must the good writer pay attention to the housework of writing in order to produce a solid, cohesive and accurate book or story. There is just no getting around it.

Writing housework is the time spent categorizing characters, places and events so that their use throughout the manuscript is consistent and accurate. If the villain has blue eyes on page 7, he/she must have blue eyes on page 230, unless, of course, colored contacts are being used and then those must be accounted for in the text. If you write that it’s Sunday when your protagonist visits a witness and then three days later you say it’s Friday, shame on you, you didn’t do your housework.

Everyone handles their writing chores differently. I know writers who keep index cards, notebooks, and separate files on the computer. Generally, I fall into the last category and often supplement it with a large erasable whiteboard. While working on a manuscript, I keep a file specific to that manuscript in which I list all the characters, both major and minor, the places they go, and the dates and times of day they do things. As soon as a character is mentioned in the manuscript, I stop to add that character to my notes file. The character is given an identity, physical characteristics, an occupation, a place of residence, and even a little back story. There might even be a note or two about how I intend to use them again later in the story.

Places and dates are given a similar treatment. For tracking dates and timelines, I pick a starting date for the story and download a blank calendar page for that month and year and fill in all holidays, birthdays and other dates important to the story. I then mark on the calendar each day’s progress of the story – Odelia gets dragged into the murder on Tuesday, she tracks down the one-eyed jockey on Thursday, etc. As I said, if the story starts on a Sunday, five days later had better be Friday. And Easter never falls on a Tuesday. Believe me, readers pay attention to these things.

I repeat – I hate housework. It keeps me from the flow and fun of writing, but without it I’d have a big sloppy mess on my hands, especially since I write a series. And I’ve found that if I wait to do my writing chores after a day’s writing, I don’t do them properly. For me, it works best while I’m in the moment when the character, place or activity is fresh on the page.

How do you do your writing housework? Here’s your chance to play Heloise and share your tips and remedies for tracking ongoing information in your work.


G.M. Malliet said...

I am amazed at how difficult it is to keep track of things like eye color, at least until I've lived with my characters awhile. (Hair color, not usually a problem.)

It kind of worries me that I can't keep these details straight...I have to jot down certain items on a "cheat sheet" so I don't forget - again.

It is good to know I'm not alone in this.

Nina Wright said...

Wonderful post, Sue Ann. Yes, "housekeeping" our novels-in-progress is a necessary evil, which becomes more vital and complicated when we write series. I maintain separate files labeled Timeline (a linear calendar), Tracking (a synopsis of each chapter), Notions (for my questions and brainstorms), Character Notes (for bios and physical details), and Landscape Notes (for geographical facts). I often use maps, too--ones I draft myself for the places I make up in addition to actual street maps and atlases.

Joe Moore said...

A fun post, Sue Ann. Can't wait to see everyone's housekeeping methods. One of the techniques Lynn Sholes and I use is what we call a “plotting matrix”. It’s really nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet with the names of a character at the top of each column, and each row labeled for a different event or chapter or scene. Because our books contain a cast of thousands with events occurring around the globe, we have to know where everyone is and what they’re doing. So if a row is labeled Cotten Stone saves the Russian president’s life, we fill in the rest of the row with a short description of what the other characters are doing during the same timeframe. Even if we don’t necessarily use the info, at least we know where all our children are and if they’re behaving.

Bill Cameron said...

Here's my question. How did writers do it back before they could do a search on their computers.

"What color are her eyes, and where did I mention it?"

If I didn't write on a computer, I feel like I'd be doomed. And that is despite the fact that my first two novels were written pre-computer. I guess I did okay (though the novels were unpublishable dreck), but I can't remember how I managed everything.

On a related note, ever find yourself reading a novel and thinking, "Wait, what did that guy say back in that scene in the bordello?" Since you can't remember what page the bordello scene was on, you want to click control-f to find the forgotten phrase, but you can't because you're reading a book.

Just saying.

Bill Cameron said...

Just wanted to add...

For Mac users, there is a great little writing app called Avenir which I use. It got all these nice tools for managing characters, scenes, locations, research, notes, and more, all in one spot. I write in Avenir, then export the files to Word to send off to my agent. Very nice app.

So, Mac users, have a look at:

Great app, easy to use, really cheap, and the developer Todd, continues to update and improve it!

Kate Thornton said...

Great post, Sue Ann! I like to make up a "cheat sheet" as well, just a word doc with main character outlines. I add stuff as I write - and as the characters develop.

I usually have a pretty good idea of location/setting/right turns/stop signs without putting them on the reference sheet, so I don't do it for settings.

Mark Combes said...

I'm a small "L" luddite. Meaning, I don't do a damn thing to keep track of changes but I do write on a computer. In my first novel a character's name changed in a matter of 15 chapters, but my eagle-eyed editor caught it. Making me think, I better pay more attention to this I'm taking notes people....

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

I'm with you Sue Ann.

I also get tired of tracking small consistencies like in my w.i.p. how I punctuate definitions. (Uh, my protag is a word-lover, and she gets distracted and goes over the etymology of words during conversations.)'s part of the job, eh?

When I wrote non-fiction, it was tracking sources, attributions, and so on.

With scrapbooking books, it was names of manufacturers and so on.

It's a lot more than just writing a story!

Felicia Donovan said...

If it's housework, are they "dustjacket bunnies"? Great post, Sue Ann. I'm awful at remembering those details, so I keep a running file and as I add any character, the file is appended. Part of the plot line of The Black Widow Agency is that each book introduces a new character that knows a character from a previous story that was helped by BWA, so it's important that I get the prior references right.

I think readers would be amazed at how easily authors (I'm the worst one for this) forget specific details and yes, with series, it's especially important to remember that a character prefers Southern Comfort over Jack Daniels. Thank goodness for sharp editors (and in my case, a really sharp agent as well) who pay careful attention to all this.