Keeping track of people and places in the novel

How do writers keep track of who’s who in their novels? What about timelines? How complex do their notes need to be?

Some people write complex biographies on their major characters before they start writing. They know where their characters are born, whether or not they have a mole on their back, who they grew up with and each lover they have had. Others never record anything about them at all. These people rely on memory, or re-reading their novel. We come somewhere on the lighter side of in-between.

We do not start off tracking characters. We begin with an idea, a character in a situation, and start writing. We’re lucky when we start if we even know what our character looks like.

In Barrain, for example, we had a vague idea of Scott as one of those trendy young people with blonde hair and modern clothes. Caid had large green eyes—a cross between a cat and an elf —and that was about it. We started writing with that.

We’re a quarter of the way through the story now, and have so many characters and locations to keep track of that we need to do something about it.

We need a list. We do this in a Word document (if I start it), or in an Excel spreadsheet (if Sherylyn does). It’s a simple table, and it’s very basic.

Partial list of people in Barrain, with level of description

The list should be in alphabetical order.

It’s a simple list, very basic, and we don’t go into any real detail. Personal appearance is noted where it is important. For example, the colour of Scott’s eyes compared to Caid’s (and the other Barrainers) is important, so that is noted, but we don’t mention Mather’s hair colour, because it’s not.

Around the same time we start implementing a timeline. This is usually a spreadsheet, with the timeline across the top, and people along the left.

Time increments depend on the time frame of the story.

Basic timeline

I have simplified the timeline here, but you get the gist.

To date, these simple character lists (people, places and things) and the timeline have worked for us and as we go on through the story and the drafts they become invaluable.

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