At a book signing for his award-winning novel A Distant Flame, Philip Lee Williams told us that before he started worked on the manuscript, he created a timeline showing where everyone was at every moment as Union troops approached Atlanta. I told him my wife was going to hear about that because she thinks I’m overly picky about research. He said a lot of people’s eyes glazed over at the thought of such a timeline.
I’ve been reading Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander Series” ever since the first book appeared in 1991. I’m reading Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014) now. I doubt she outlined all of the English, Scots, and American history her series has covered leading up to the current novel set during the American revolution.
But her large, 800-page books are remarkably detailed and have a large cast of characters on multiple timelines. I wonder how she keeps it all straight. I wonder if Williams would have to re-read A Distant Flame in addition to his Civil War timeline if he wrote a sequel.
Readers–like Star Trek fans–are always the first to catch inconsistencies the author and his/her editors missed. A minor character’s eyes change color between books or episodes, a battle fought one year is suddenly at a different time and place, a person who said he didn’t know the main character turns out to have met them dozens of times in earlier books.
I’m an intuitive writer. That means I never outline anything and don’t know before writing a scene how it’s going to end. I’ve had a good editor and she sees things I miss. But she can’t fix major goofs. I worried about making Sarabande consistent with The Sun Singer. And now, as I work on a sequel to Conjure Woman’s Cat, I’m amazed at how often I have to go back and check things to make sure the new book isn’t out of sync with the earlier book.
This is the only time I wish I were disciplined enough to write an outline. Truth be told, I sort of cheated in English classes where we were expected to turn in both the outline and the term paper because I always wrote the outline after the paper was done. I suppose I can do now, but my eyes glaze over at the thought.
It’s strange re-reading ones own work. I come across passages that I’m surprised that I was able to write. Other passages, I wish I’d handled slightly differently. And I marvel at how my detail-oriented mind will consider the growing seasons of plants the characters see while hiking through the woods, but cannot remember who they were hiking with.
Of course, if you’re submitting to major publishers and agents, they’re going to require a synopsis. I’ve written those several times and have to confess that having them later on as reference does help keep sequels consistent. Some writers make character lists and spend a great deal of time writing little character studies about them that include height, weight, eye color, hair color, and other details. If I did that, I wouldn’t have to search through my previous books using terms like “hair” or “eyes” to see what color I chose.
It’s not that that stuff doesn’t matter. It does. It’s an important part of making the character and his/her actions seem real and valid. Nobody ever accused me of having an encyclopedic mind. I’m horrible at Scrabble, Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. I think it all goes back to a college geology course in which the teacher said, in this class we don’t memorize things for tests; instead, we talk about larger concepts because anyone with a good set of reference books can look up the details.
That was my new mantra. Never again would I consider listing all the battles of a war and memorizing the dates they happened–much less all the characters in one of my books and the colors of their eyes, hair and favorite shirts and blouses.
While, I love writing without an outline, it plays hell with keeping all the facts straight when it’s time to write a sequel. Yes, I know, I can forget writing sequels. Unfortunately, I like the characters too much and can easily think of more stories to tell about them.
If you write, how do you keep your characters straight from book to book to book. If you read novels in a series, do you catch yourself going back to earlier books because you think the author has gotten something backwards?
Since I write magical realism, fantasy and paranormal stories, I’m ready for any reader who finds any inconsistency. “Hey, Dude, it’s magic.”