View Full Version : Tracking Your World

03-17-2005, 10:28 PM
This is helpful whether you're writing only one standalone novel or a series. What I'm referring to is an information file containing the elements you've invented or created in your manuscript's world. This technique works for everything, but I'll use a fantasy setting as an example. Other writers are invited to add their own twists to this.

First off, I categorize mine. I have categories for Characters, Places, Ecology, Businesses, and so forth.

Buzzy Maincharacter - m(ale), black hair, brought up in orphanage in Mainport.

Mainport - port located on Werey Continent east coast; one day south of New Port; two days north of Small Port.

fan grass - found around Mainport; exported for use in making hand fans.

When I create these lists, I make it a point to alphabetize as I go along. While it might be nice to make a chronological listing, that won't make it easy to find something when you're later in need of a reminder of what you created so you don't contradict yourself.

Also, I never list anything that wasn't used in the manuscript. Otherwise, there's too much opportunity to forget to actually mention something to the reader that's critical for the reader to understand the character or the story.

Whenever a listing uses more than one line, I use a reverse indent so that the subsequent lines indent beneath the listing and make it stand out better. I couldn't get that to work here, but it's a useful trick that many word processors can handle.

When there are series involved, I also list which manuscript number anything appears within. Thus, the following example:

Buzzy Maincharacter - m(ale), black hair, brought up in orphanage in Mainport (1) (2).
Polly Sweetcharacter - f(emale), red hair, blue eyes, innkeeper's daughter in Mainport (1) (3).

Notice that she doesn't appear in manuscript 2. Nor does he appear in manuscript 3. So, knowing when a character doesn't get used in a series is also as important as knowing where they were used.

03-18-2005, 09:44 AM
i keep plenty of notes, though i don't usually organize them. i put them in a file and delete them as i go as a rule. i keep a few lists as i go. otherwise, i rarely, rarely, rarely outline. on paper, at least. i amend my lists as i progress through the story. these things i think are helpful for a lot of writers, especially those who prefer outlines. i think these lists and organizational methods can often spur other ideas particularly if you're not the type predisposed to thinking about an ecology.

03-18-2005, 11:10 AM
I have tons and tons of information about two planets on which several stories... novels... (everything unfinished, so far) take place. Names of countries, characterrs, animals, maps, calendars, and lots of other stuff. I gues you could call it my reference libray.

03-18-2005, 06:45 PM
Well, this isn't an outline, but it is an organizational tool. I've found that once you reach the third manuscript in a series, the scenes and characters can seem remote at times. In fact, it came about because I realized that I was confusing which ideas had been used and which were still waiting to be used. By listing which characters were involved and where, I could keep track of the ideas that had been used.

I also found it useful to track lesser characters. You know, the kind who frequently wear red shirts? After all, if you kill off the Mic Character in book 2, you don't want him appearing in a scene in book 4 unless it's a flashback. I'd keep track of such things like this:

Mic Character - m(ale), jovial, thin (1) killed by stampeding ducks shouting Aflac (2)

03-18-2005, 07:29 PM
killed by stampeding ducks shouting Aflac

Ouch, that's gotta hurt.

I've never found just one system for organizing my worlds. None of them have ever been a "perfect" fit. But I like the simplicity of this, Dave, so I think I'll give it a try. Thanks!

03-18-2005, 08:45 PM
right, it's not an outline, though i think it compliment an outline very well. to say what i meant in better terms, if you're an outline type of writer, something like this seems like a good fit. even if you write in a rather sloppy, loose, haphazard way like me, there's got to be *some* organization for those longer stories. i thought i could pull a trilogy off using my typical M.O.. uhm, no, didn't work, lol. even in a normal-size book, i'll have a hundred little ideas that at some point i'll put in chronological order, and i've always got these little researched facts that go into the mix. when actually creating a new world, there's a lot of things to consider.

there should also be a caveat with world-making: i'd read this one guy's truly awful fantasy on another world where he just went on and on about how this monarchy worked in detail and trivial little things about the plants and animals and, well, everything we never wanted to know about the damn place.

i think it's interesting to note that, at least for me, it's much easier to discard and/or use pertenant facts when those facts are ones i picked up from research than it is to discard 'facts' i thought up to fit a new world, as if by virtue of me thinking them up they're more worthy of inclusion into the story. for me, it's harder to separate the two.

03-18-2005, 11:19 PM
Well, one of the biggest advantages for me was in keeping straight several characters and what vessels they served upon. This became an interesting problem for me because I went on the premise that an individual would be likely to know a certain amount of people and places.

This was based upon a scientific article I came across some years ago. It speculated that an individual would be likely to know at least 150 people by name. Therefore, it wouldn't be realistic for me to have someone in a village or on a vessel not know the names of the people around him, especially if the boat held only 20 crew members.

So, in keeping with that as a guide, I went for realism which dictated that the characters had to know a lot of people. They couldn't just spend all their time introducing themselves to each other and I couldn't just have them shouting, "Hey, you, get that line secured!" when "Hey, Joe, get that line secured!" would be more appropriate. This, of course, necessitated keeping track of the minor characters and that meant keeping a tracking log so that I'd know that Joe was on vessel X and Jane was on vessel Y. Getting one of them wrong later might present a real problem for the reader in accepting the story.

Julian Black
03-19-2005, 05:59 AM
I'm doing research right now for a historical fantasy set in Restoration London (which may end up as two books). It's worldbuilding through excavation, rather than accumulation (which I've done on previous, thankfully unpublished, stories). Since I have a background in history, I'm obsessed with getting the details right.

To keep track of everything (and already there is a lot to keep track of), I use 1-1/2" three-ring binders. I don't have characters yet, but I have one binder devoted to politics, economics, and international affairs, and another devoted to religion, society, and culture. A third has my notes on the environment (both natural and built), and technology--which includes things like ships and weaponry, medicine, and scientific knowledge, as well as the various types of magic and alchemy that go into the fantasy elements.

As the amount of information I gather expands, some of those categories will get their own binders, others will split into two or more categories, and as characters and specific settings emerge I will have files on them, too. I'm starting with broad categories and refining it into narrower ones as I go along.

I also keep separate research notes. After a day of poring over books and writing down various facts, I sit down at the end of it and write down any thoughts I might have about my nascent plot, and what directions it might be headed in.

Eventually, I will have to create a map to keep track of where all of my locations are, and draw pictures of places and people. I do very detailed character worksheets, and I've found that creating a timeline that accounts for where everyone is and what they are doing in a given scene (or behind the scenes) makes life a lot easier--I notice plot holes and continuity errors very quickly when it's all laid out in front of me in one place.

03-19-2005, 11:43 AM
ever run one of your characters through one of those online personality tests, answering as they would? did the results match how you perceived your character to be? if not, is that the writer's fault or a flawed test?

Zane Curtis
03-19-2005, 04:02 PM
Because I don't have a very good memory, I like to keep fairly comprehensive notes, so I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. Mostly, I like to keep this idea (http://www.envf.port.ac.uk/illustration/z/07/s01.htm) in mind: that the longest sequence of items that can be stored in short term memory at any one time is seven. I take this to mean that if I want to write a story readers can follow, I need to write it so they don't have to remember more than seven things at once.

The way I get around this restriction is to organise information into heirarchies. For example, I may divide the setting of my novel into four or five general areas. So that's one list of four or five names the readers will hear when my characters start to talk about their world in general, and the broad sweep of events. The events of the novel itself would be restricted to one of those general areas, which I would further divide into four or five locations. And if one of those locations plays a significant part in the story, I'll break that down. It's my way of ensuring that the readers won't be inundated with names, dates, facts, and figures at any one moment in the story.

I make other sorts of lists too. I particularly like to maintain a foreshadowing list. Every time I plant some sort of set-up in a novel to use later, it goes on the list. When it pays off, I cross it out. When I'm planning my next bit of plot, I have a look at the list and see if there's anything on it I can use. It usually works out. I can tell you, my foreshadowing lists are usually a better source of inspiration than anything else. It can throw up some surprises, because of course, when I put things on the list I have no idea how I might eventually use them. Again, I want to make sure there are no more than seven active items on the list at any one time, so the plot is not too complicated for a reader to follow. Anything that's left unused at the end will have to be taken out in the rewrite, so the list comes in handy there as well.

Another thing I do occasionally is keep a timetable for my secondary characters, which keeps track of their habitual movements at certain times of the day and days of the week. I do this on a spreadsheet, so that I can cross reference characters to locations within my setting. This way they sort of take on a life of their own. For example, I'll know that Joe Blogs generally eats lunch at a cafe near his office on weekdays, so if my main characters happen to visit, they'll see him there. It represents quite a bit of work, but all the work's up front, and once it's done, you can use it all throughout your novel, and any subsequent novel you write using the same characters and setting.

03-25-2005, 07:39 AM
The moment you're certain that you're writing a series is when you need need a timeline. It doesn't have to be fancy and most can be rather simple.

If you have a year or specific date, then put that at the top of your page. On each line below it, list the events in order that occur in your story. When the date is significantly different, such as occurring in a new month, season, year, or decade, use that as a new heading and then list what occurred.

Events don't have to be battles or establishment of governments. They can be whatever you think is important to remember and keep straight. You can also list when major characters come into the story or met each other. This can be extremely important in keeping their actions straight. After all, it can be embarrassing to have a reader later catch you with a character who's only eight yet was born much earlier according to the story. It also saves you having to reread an entire manuscript just to answer the question of when something happened in your overall story.

For example, you could have:

Year 1 - Anna born to MC Jim and Jane
Year 2 - First hint of Anna's power appears
Year 5 - first adult disappears from colony
- fish disappear from river
- birds disappear from nearby trees
Year 10 - second adult disappears
- third adult disappears month later

03-25-2005, 08:04 AM
This is some good information. Thanks for posting it. I like writing big, detailed epics and, well, I wasn't sure how to categorize characters or to remind myself what a certain area's ecology is like. Thus I've never been able to keep good track of all the individuals or places in my books. Things have a tendency to clash in my stuff because of this. The ideas you all have posted here are great. I look forward to reading more of them.

04-19-2005, 01:58 PM
Despite not having done anything even vageuly series-oriented yet, I almost always timeline. If the significant events of the plotline take place over more than few days, I'll timeline to make sure that everyone has time to eat and sleep, for one. If there are things going on in multiple places at once, I'll timeline to ensure that messengers don't have to run at FTL speeds to communicate plots.

And I'll always, always timeline if the story runs long enough that the ages of characters change significantly over the course of the story. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I misremembered the birth date of one of my own characters. His resulting relationship ... well, my proofreader caught the mistake, and asked me whether or not his baroness wife-to-be was really supposed to be "that kind of sicko." Yeah. Timelines are good.

04-24-2005, 03:44 PM
Some writing students and I have been reading fantsy novels. The students are keen to try their hand at writing fantasy so were critically examining some of their favourite fantasy novels. We did find some awful howlers in these books (No, I am not telling you authors or titles because many will be your favourites!)

It was simple practicalities that made us laugh. The way horses are treated like cars. Seems fantasy horses can go all day without food, rest or water. They never lose a shoe or need feet trimming or teeth care or grooming or debugging or worming! Same for fantasy oxen or any animal form of transport.

Bows kept strung all day. Most peculiar arrow heads and inaccurate details of how to use some bows, particularly the long bow. If the type of wood is mentioned it is often the wrong type for arrows or bows. The string is often kept where it would get wet in a sudden shower. Quivers and bows are slung carelessly about and often are without covers. No provision seems to be made for fetching arrows, hunting lost ones or remaking the darned things!
Daggers and swords seem never to rust or need sharpening. Stone and wooden weapons don't break or need sharpening. Some of them don't even sound useable.

Out in the wilderness.
The hero and friends, or heroine and friends often are, we are told, expert at woodcraft. Yet they ignore the basics of safety we have to use whenever we go into the bush today. We all laughed loud and long at the heroine and faithful companion who were on a secret and dangerous journey through a wild and wicked forest, and were being followed closely by the enemy, yet they undressed every night and dressed in the morning. Also all that talk of blankets. You try a few nights out with a couple of blankets and you'll see what we mean.

Could I beg you fantasy world builders to do some practical research and experience through re-enactment groups, practical archaeology sessions, and reading some darned good books! Just one book on the Iceman would give you a great understanding of tools, woods, clothing and vital survival equipment. The BBC History and Archaeology website has some good interactive 'game' sites where you can learn how to light a fire and cook on an open fire, make bread without modern camping gear.

Get out there and ride a horse all day, learn how much food and water and rest it needs. Try to light a fire and find your food. Learn how to knap a flint axe head or use a bow and fletch an arrow. Try to see an animal killed, skinned and butchered. Watch the work that goes into making the skin into a soft supple useable article. Try your hand at a bit of spinning and weaving, using everything from grass to bark fibres to wool.

It doesn't matter how different your invented world is, certain basic practicalities remain the same if your characters are going to survive. Please don't make your readers laugh at the wrong things for want of some research.

04-24-2005, 05:18 PM
It was simple practicalities that made us laugh. The way horses are treated like cars. Seems fantasy horses can go all day without food, rest or water. They never lose a shoe or need feet trimming or teeth care or grooming or debugging or worming! Same for fantasy oxen or any animal form of transport.Terry Pratchett's latest novel Going Postal, although in nearly all respects a marvellous book, has the reverse problem: he has a supposedly express four-horse mail-coach, not overburdened, mostly running on quite good terrain and with regular stops to change horses, taking IIRC two months to cover two thousand miles - which is no faster than human walking speed for somebody fairly fit.

04-24-2005, 07:31 PM
I agree about showing some of the care that has to take place. Although I don't show all the care taking place, I refer to the fact that it does by mentioning some of the training. I even put in a "left-handed monkey wrench" type joke by having one experienced individual tell some new apprentices that if their beast got constipated, they'd have to insert an arm to loosen it up or the beast could die. Of course, the apprentices at first believed that until they realized that no one's arm was long enough to reach that far in a beast that large (whale sized).

Also, it helps if you keep in mind that other activities have to take place when traveling such as gathering/hunting food. That takes time and means that you can't travel quite as far.

Beyond that, weather should be taken into account.

Of course, the biggest gripe I have with any story, book, TV, or movie, is when the main character comes up with all the solutions or knows how to do everything. A leader will not know how to repair a radio. He won't know how many things work when it comes to the details. He'll know a few basics, but not enough to replicate the device.

04-24-2005, 11:58 PM
BE VAGUE! :) That's my motto. Don't mention details of horses, bows, camping, oil lamps, embroidery, or anything else when you can possibly avoid it. That may sound defeatist, but besides limiting the howlers you commit it will keep you from bogging the story down in trivial details that may bore readers (unless your initials are RJ). It will also avoid pearls like this (taken from a hardback fantasy novel):

"Swinging one leg over the pommel of his saddle, he slipped quickly to the ground..."

I bet he did. :ROFL: Pity he didn't just "dismount."

Have you noticed how few fantasy authors put scales on their maps? Guess why. (This bugs me, though. It proclaims sloppiness. There are scales on my maps, by golly, even though that meant that when two ships coming from opposite directions over great distances had to cross paths on a given day it took me a long time to work out the departure dates. I had to rewrite part of a chapter.)

04-25-2005, 12:31 AM
I also found it useful to track lesser characters.

I just found this thread today. Glad I did, before it had gotten too long and discouraged "catching up."

Dave, I love your technique. I did have trouble keeping track of my lesser characters personalities and tone. Your way of tracking, is an excellent idea, thank you.

04-25-2005, 01:22 AM
i see your point there, vomaxx, but just from that particular example it seems the author was trying to make the character seem cool or slick, rather like the difference between opening the door and getting into your convertible or jumping over it into the seat. i'd say that's got some different connotations. anyone can dismount, that character did it with *flair* going over the pommel and sliding down, lol. just from that statement, i can deduce the character is a horseman, is confident, probably cocky and somewhat a bit of a show-off. that is, of course, having absolutely no other context to frame my deduction in. having said he 'dismounted,' well, what can be said about that? :) sorry, don't mean to sound contradictory, but considering it in hindsight, did the author do a good job at expressing his character better the way he wrote it or would it still have been better had he simply 'dismounted'?

04-25-2005, 01:39 AM
Depending on the shape of the saddle, he'd probably have caught his crotch on the pommel and ended up in a heap on the ground. Or the horse would have raised its head as he tried this manouvre, whacked him on the knee and tipped him over. There are reasons why people dismount by swinging their leg across the horse's tail.

04-25-2005, 12:50 PM
A reader can tell when the writer is cheating because they haven't done their research. It's the old iceberg story. Only the tip of your research shows but you write a better and more honest story for understanding how your world works.

04-26-2005, 03:38 AM
I have to agree with vagueness for the most part. There will be times when details are necessary, but most of the time you want the action to keep moving so vagueness is necessary. Also, most of us simply don't have the time to research string theory, internal nuclear combustion engines, three-dimensional star navigation, and how to cook Klingon goulash alfredo. We have a story to tell. We give a few details when necessary such as the shore being rocky or the solar system being sparse, but there's no need for us to state that the shore possessed an abundance numbering 5,499,304,422 rocks or that the solar system possessed blah, blah, asteroids, planets, and what-not because in most instances those precise details aren't needed by the writer or the reader.

I've read several manuscripts before that suffered from such precision. Sadly, the writing screamed 13-year-old amateur at me because it seemed to think that everyone wanted to not only know how many ships there were in the space fleet, but what each of them were doing. The facts became bloated quite quickly. The action slowed to a crawl until the writer was forced to tell the story instead of show it.

Okay, I know there are a few decent 13-year-old writers out there. If so, you know this isn't aimed at you.

04-26-2005, 09:29 AM
Sorry everyone. I did not mean that fantasy writers had to do the research and then add all that knowledge to their fiction. Selected details to make the scene seem real are what most readers want and what a good story can carry. However if the writers don't know enough to select the most telling and appropriate details then there is a credability gap for the reader.

If your hero is an expert in woodcraft yet can't make a quick and simple shelter to protect himself from the overnight rain then some of your readers are going to lose faith in the story.

You can find out about an amazing number of things if you talk to people. People who are experts or keen amateurs at something often love to talk about their 'hobby'. You can pick up a lot of telling details just from listening and asking questions. Then use those details in your fiction.

04-26-2005, 05:14 PM
pdr, I was struck by one thing you said about experts. That is that you have to be sure the meaning is understood. For instance, an expert in woodcraft might be understood by many to be a woodworker/carpenter which might not be of any use in the wild when it comes to making a temporary shelter. The shelter might be nothing more than a crude lean-to meant to block some of the wind and rain. For that, no real skills might be necessary.

Still, your other points are excellent and very much on target.

04-27-2005, 05:39 AM
Ah, we say bushcraft, Dave. I translated that as woodcraft for you Americans, should it be forestcraft?

But the point about an overnight shelter is not necessarily the skills to make it but the knowledge that it can and would be made. Two books our group read by respected writers had their main characters cursing the rain as they huddled beneath cloaks or trees. The characters were supposed to be beings who were skilled in bushcraft. If they were why hadn't they made shelters?