I’ve seen quite a few author discussions and how-to-write articles that debate the value of creating supporting documents when writing a fiction novel. Some writers must have at least a rough outline of their plot before starting the actual writing, while others say that they feel more creative when they just let the characters go and see where the story leads. Obviously, either approach can produce a novel. I think it really comes down to whatever works best for each individual. While working on my current project this past month, I stumbled across a couple of examples of why I do things the way I do.
I like to start the whole process by creating what I call a Timeline. It’s actually a type of synopsis in which I describe individual scenes in free form present tense notes. Each scene may (or may not) end up as one or more chapters in the final novel. A summary line at the top of each scene description looks something like this: “Day 3 early afternoon in John’s car near Hood’s Crossing (John POV/Brandon)”. Basically, it helps me keep track of where, when and who. The brief notes that follow fill in the what for that scene.
The Timeline for my current novel helped me avoid a serious plot problem a few weeks ago. As I sketched out a sequence of scenes, I realized that my characters did not have enough time to do everything they needed to do in a single day. The setting of one scene required the twilight of a summer evening, but what my protagonists learned in that scene was supposed to result in an urgent call to a business in the next scene. I quickly realized that it would be too late in the day to call a business office. Moving things around to solve the problem would have been much more difficult while in the middle of the first draft—if I caught the problem at all. This is not something I’d want a reader to point out some day.
The other document I create I call Character Notes. The description of each character is usually not complete enough to be called a biography, but it grows as I learn more details about the character. The file gives me a place to store that information.
The Character Notes provide consistency. In my current mystery, one of the characters lost all contact with his mother at a young age. This is important to the story and is mentioned in several scenes. Later on, I couldn’t remember whether this happened when he was five or seven years old. A quick check of the character notes was simpler than scanning back through a manuscript to see what I’d said previously. The Character Notes is also a good place to record details like what type of car the hero drives, as well as details from his past that will come into play eventually in the story.
Sometimes my memory for important little details just doesn’t seem to be what it used to be, so I find these tools work for me. I’m probably also influenced by my background in computer programming. But each writer’s mind works differently. This approach will seem too cumbersome and slow for some.
There are many ways to skin a cat—not that you’d ever want to actually do that.
Norm Brown is the author of the suspense novel Carpet Ride, published by Secondwind Publishing, LLC.