By Margaret Lucke
"The truth of the story lies in the details."
-- Paul Auster
A big part of a writer's job is wrangling a myriad of details, and not just the large, important details that shape the plot and define the characters. Equally important are the tiny ones that bring the story alive and give readers the sense of being part of events that are actually happening. If we lose track of those, soon we may lose our readers as well.
In my first novel, A Relative Stranger, a ring plays a significant role -- a gold band with a large central diamond surrounded by small emeralds. Or is it a large central emerald surrounded by small diamonds? I described it both ways, and no one who read the manuscript noticed the discrepancy until well into the production process, when the publisher's cover artist caught it. I'll be forever grateful.
Readers are sharp. We can't count on them to overlook our mistakes and inconsistencies, and they won't become our fans if they are throwing the book across the room in frustration. If we can't keep track of the simple details, why should they trust us when it comes to the plot and the characters?
The problem compounds when the book is part of a series. Not only do we have to keep track of the details in the current book, we have to make sure they jibe with what we said in earlier volumes. Easier said than done, and even top authors can slip up. A friend was rereading an early novel in a long-running mystery series and discovered that in this book the author had given a major character an ex-wife and children. In later volumes he was a single guy who'd never been married or had kids.
This is the kind of oops we want to avoid. But how? When we're immersed in writing a book we think we could never forget the details (a wrong assumption; see above), but it's amazing how quickly they fade once we've moved on to the next project.
When I began writing House of Desire, the second novel in my Claire Scanlan haunted house series, I pored through the first book, House of Whispers, to find what I'd already said about characters and places that appear in both stories. Claire's sister Cassandra, a background figure in the first book, plays a prominent role in the second one. I had to find out what I'd said about her so I could build her character on the foundation I'd already laid.
I did a quick reread of House of Whispers, and made a lot of use of Microsoft Word's search feature. When I came across paragraphs that described Cassandra or other characters who have recurring roles, I copied and pasted that information into a new document labeled with the character's name. That way I'd have those details handy for rapid reference. I did the same for the places that are part of Claire's world in both books. In this way I began to construct a rudimentary series bible.
Now that I'm writing a third book, House of Shadows, I'm constructing a more formal series bible, with character bios, descriptions of locales, timelines, photos -- whatever might help me keep track of details large and small. I'm using Scrivener, a software program for writers, but a basic three-ring binder could do the job too.
Basketball coach John Wooden wasn't talking about writing novels, let alone a series of them, when he said, "It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen." But his words apply to fiction, and we authors do would well to bear them in mind – and figure out how to keep track of our details.
If anyone has suggestions, I'd welcome them.