While it’s a wonderful feeling to launch into your first draft, visualizing your characters, following your plot outline or writing “by the seat of your pants” and making up dynamic dialogue, at some point you will start getting into trouble with contradictions. These are usually the ones you create yourself! For example, back in Chapter 2, the house had three bedrooms and now it has four. In Chapter 3 it took the characters 5 minutes to run down to the river, now it takes 20 minutes and the river is to the south instead of the north. And what happened to Friday? You discover you skipped it altogether (yes, this has happened to me).
These are what I call the mechanics, and there are several handy ways to keep track of this stuff. You will notice that what I list below are nearly all visual tools, which is how I like to work. You might have practical ways of creating these mechanics for yourself that work better for you, but the principles still apply:
- Maps – depending on where your novel is set, you might be drawing a map of a village, a street, a county or a whole country. You don’t need to buy one of those map-drawing packages, but you do need a large piece of paper and a few handy symbols. Stick trees for forest, blue pens for rivers, streams, lakes and oceans, and so on.
The other handy tool is a ruler. Decide how many miles or kilometers to the inch/centimeter, draw yourself a scale at the bottom as a reminder, and use that to work out how far apart things are. You might need to revise this in order to fit everything in. this way, you can then work out how long it will take your characters to get from A to B, and keep it consistent. You can also work this out with walking, riding a horse, sailing, driving, etc.
- House plans – this is similar to a map, but when you have one or more significant buildings where characters move around, sleep, eat, or fight, it can be very useful to know where the kitchen or bathroom is, whether there are two or three storeys, how big the back and front yards are.
- Lists – how often have your characters gone on a journey and you’ve forgotten what they’re carrying? They leave home with a backpack and a water bottle and halfway through your story, they are suddenly a sandwich that came from nowhere. Lists are amazingly useful in all kinds of ways. Not just as reminders, but also in terms of helping you fill out your characters. Why would John’s favourite hat be a beret? Why does Mary carry four lipsticks in her purse?
- Family tree – you may not have enough characters, you think, to bother with this, but making up family trees for every major character not only keeps their relationships clear but can also help you create more backstory for them. You can also make up relationship grids that show how different characters feel about each other. John hates George but Mary admires him. Why?
- Timelines – the most simple of these is straight line that starts with the beginning of your story and ends with the end of it, and all the major events are noted in between, as are the days of the week. This way, you don’t miss a day, and you don’t have characters doing things too quickly or too slowly. You can also create a series of grids, with the days of the week at the top and your major characters down the left-hand side. In each box, you can note what that character does on that day. This keeps everyone logically in the right place at the right time – especially valuable if some characters disappear from the story for a while. It can be incredibly enlightening and helpful for you to work out what they are doing during those times!
If you have any other tools to share, let us know in the Comments.