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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

19 August 2008

Charting the world of a series


As I've mentioned before, I love series, both as a reader and a writer. I love going back to a familiar world, catching up with old friends, seeing how their lives have developed, meeting new people in that world. I love returning to worlds created by my favorite authors or returning to the world of my own characters and exploring their further adventures. In many ways, I find it easier to write about my continuing characters than new ones. It always takes me several chapters to get the voice of new characters, while I can pick up with Charles and Mélanie and Raoul and David and Simon and others and know precisely how they talk. But writing a series also presents challenges, particularly for the historical writer. You have to keep track of complex chronologies, details in the lives of your characters intermixed with historical events. Then there are physical descriptions, layouts of houses that appear in more than one book, whether they went to Eton or Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, if the family's secondary estate is in Leicestershire or Hertfordshire, the name's someone's married sisters who never actually appeared in the book (and which one of them was pregnant during said book), and a host of other details. Last month when Joanna Bourne visited us, I asked her about keeping track of details in a series. Joanna's recently released My Lord and Spymaster is connected to The Spymaster's Lady, set a few years later, while her third book is set earlier than both.

Joanna replied, Ummm ... I have a table. Doesn't everyone?

Well, no, I confess I don't. It actually never occurred to me to use spreadsheets that way (which perhaps has something to do with the fact thatI have yet to become truly proficient with Excel :-). As Joanna explained it, The left hand column, year by year, is how old my characters are and what they're doing and whether they ever meet.

Right hand column, year by year. is what's happening in the world.

Kalen Hughes also uses spreadsheets for the wonderfully interconnected world of her historicals. I keep track of how old my characters are, how old “real” people were, and all kinds of events, everything from what books were being published to what horses won races to what scandals were in the news. Makes it much easier to just grab a bit of history when I need it and keep writing.

A lot of other writers I've talked to use Excel or that if they were starting a new series they'd keep a workbook with a tab for each book and include the relevant details that are so easy to confuse like physical descriptions, eye color, etc...

Candice Hern, who creates vivid, interwoven worlds, keeps a notebook for each book, in which I have all sorts of info. In a series, I will often need to go back to a previous book's notes to see where the previous hero lived, or something liked that. The first two pages are ALWAYS physical descriptions of the hero and heroine. If I need to trot out a previous heroine and can't remember her eye color, for example, I just go to the first page of her notebook and there it is. I find it quicker and easier than hunting down a description in a manuscript or printed book. Eminently sensible, as I've at times found myself doing a search/find to track down physical descriptions in a prior book, and I know other writer who've done the same.

Part of the problem, is that one doesn't always know in the beginning precisely where a series is going. Lauren Willig says of her wonderful Pink Carnation books, In retrospect, if I had known that the series was going to become as long and convoluted as it has, I would have kept better notes from the beginning. I hadn't really thought I would need to keep track, because everything just was as it was-- when I began the series, I had a very clear idea of who everyone was, who their relations were, what their homes looked like, and so on. It was like chatting about friends. You know exactly who they are and what they look like and what they did last week. Fast-forward seven years... and suddenly I couldn't remember things like characters' exact ages or the floorplans of their homes, even though I knew, just knew, I had written it down somewhere. Also not unlike chatting about friends, only this time it was less like recapping last week, and more like telling stories of my college days: having to go back and consult my diaries to make sure I hadn't muddled it in my memory with the passage of time. My organizational method (such as it is!) for each book is to label a manilla folder with Pink I, or Pink II, or whichever, and then, as I work, to store any notes and scribblings I produce while writing that book into that folder. So when I went back to my original Pink I folder, I found a number of family trees, floorplans, clothing descriptions, and so on, which were fairly useful-- except for the bits I had changed during Book II. Or III. Fortunately, I found very few outright contradictions, but I did find a number of cases where the later versions differed from my original plans, having developed as the demands of the storyline required. In some ways, I'm glad I didn't codify the family trees earlier on, because leaving it fluid helped the series to grow by leaving me the room to add extra siblings or characters (or delete ones who I originally intended to produce, but never got a mention in any of the books). If I had been more organized earlier on, my books would have been very different stories and probably much worse for it. But somewhere around Book III or IV, I hit the point where the need for fluid development cedes way to the necessity of consistency.

As for me, I keep character profile sheets for my major characters. The year they were born, parents, siblings, physical description. Here's one for Charles's aunt, Lady Frances:

Lady Frances Traquair Dacre-Hammond

Born--1767
Parents—Malcolm Traquair, 7th Duke of Rannoch and Louise de Lisle.


Siblings—Elizabeth, b. 1765, Marjorie, b. 1774.


Married George Dacre-Hammond, 1787.


Children—Cedric, b. 1788, Aline, b.1795, Christopher, b. 1797, Judith, b. 1799, Chloe, b. 1808.
[Cedric married Maria. Two children as of 1819, Algernon, b. 1815, Ronald, b. 1817). Aline married Geoffrey Blackwell in 1814, see separate entry; Judith married in 1817].

Appearance—striking, sharp boned face, not classically beautiful but unforgettable, bright gold (brighter through the years) hair, pale skin, deep blue eyes that turn purple with the right clothes. Wears shades of purple. Penciled brows. Wears spectacles.


After those details, I write a history/character analysis, with key events and other pertinent details. Characters who don't have their own profile (such as Lady Frances's children who haven't appeared in a book yet) at least have details noted on her sheet.

I also keep a timeline, with key events in my characters' lives interwoven with historical events (there's a simplified one on my Avon microsite). And I have a lot of scraps of paper (hopefully in a folder or binder but not always) with floorplans, family trees, and assorted jottings. I don't consider a detail set in stone until it actually appears in a book, though. Like Lauren, I try to keep things fluid enough to allow me to explore as I write the series. I don't consider details set in stone until they've appeared in a published book. And even with the family trees that are in Beneath a Silent Moon, I'd feel okay adding a sibling who doesn't appear there (for instance, Lady Frances's sister Marjorie isn't there for space reasons, though she's been part of Charles and Mélanie's world in my head for some time). One of the things that was great about the recent re-release of Beneath a Silent Moon was being able to add William, 7th Earl Carfax to the family tree, which explains why John (who was on the original family tree) is the 8th Earl, though his father was the 6th. Not a major issue in Beneath, but key to The Mask of Night (the next book in the series).

I have xeroxed maps of Regency London, with fictional locations written in. And I keep a leaded glass box on my desk with photos of locations I've used in my books (at the top of the post that's me in front of Drum Castle, which was one of the models for Dunmykel). Using real locations as the basis for settings in my books helps, but of course I constantly have to remember what details of the real setting I changed for my fictional one. And perhaps my most invaluable aid is copies of my books beside my computer. I'm constantly looking things up from previous books :-).I'd love to hear from other authors about how they keep chart their fictional worlds. Readers, do you go back to prior books in a series to check details? Do inconsistencies bother you? What series worlds do you find particularly memorable?

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21 Comments:

Blogger Maya Rodale said...

Excellent tips! I wish I had been so organized with my books. Instead I just keep scraps of paper and cocktail napkins with ideas, timelines quotes, or notes cluttering up my desk. Once in a while I'll type it all up a word document. But gosh--a spreadsheet!

3:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

My "system" is more like yours, Maya! As I said, I'm lucky if I get the scraps of papers into a folder labeled with the book title. Different things work for different writers, which is why I find this so interesting. Can you find where you wrote a detail down when you need it? That's the key.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

In retrospect, if I had known that the series was going to become as long and convoluted as it has, I would have kept better notes from the beginning.

OMG yes.

I started out with spreadsheets of historical data, then I ended up adding in stuff about my characters to help me set them firmly in history, but I’ve learned so much about research and writing since I started that now I tremble at the idea of going back and creating the kind of workbook that I should have had all along (basic physical descriptions, names of servants, neighbors, walk-on and throw-away characters). It’s really daunting, but I think it must be done . . . regardless, I’ve made a vow to try and be more like Candice Hern in my record keeping for the series I’m working on now.

I have xeroxed maps of Regency London, with fictional locations written in.

LOL! I have a giant one that covers one whole wall of my bedroom. I’ve colour coded it with “real” places and the location of my characters houses and my made-up businesses.

I think the most vivid “worlds” for me (I’m going to avoid listing all my science fiction authors here and stick with just historical authors) are those of Georgette Heyer, Bernard Cornwell, Candice Hern, Sharon Kay Penman, Dorothy Dunnett, and you, Tracy (must have that next book!!!).

9:21 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Terrific topic and terrific post, Tracy -- and useful for me, who's never been able to conceive a series (though even so, I maintain tables in MSWord about my characters' ages and major life events at different stages in the narrative).

11:57 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thank so much, Kalen! :-).

I keep thinking I need to read through my books and make sure everything's noted down--you're right it's daunting, but it would save time in the end. I've realize you pretty much need *everything* noted down. A seemingly through-away character can end up appearing in a later book. Details about all characters, even minor ones could save countless time, and helps avoid situations where you suddenly have three people named Edward in the room at the same time. Speaking of which, when all your characters exist in the same world, it makes coming up with names that much more difficult.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think it's interesting how some writers think in terms of series and some don't, Pam. For me, it's always seemed obvious that all my characters exist in the same world.

Word tables are a gret idea too. Do you do the tables about your characters before you start writing or as you go?

12:03 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

My Texas vampires take place across 700 years and I've been writing them for 8 years.

I now have a massive table in MS Word, which keeps track of (1) real world events, and (2) hero/book 1 life/events, hero/book 2 events and hero/book 3 events.

I also have folders for each hero & heroine, each major setting (including maps!), era of clothing, vehicles, etc.

I gave up on Excel spreadsheets and 3-ring binders really early because I just kept rearranging things. I envy people who are more organized.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

700 years of history is defintiely a challenge, Diane! So you find tables easier to work with than Excel? (As I said, I'm not very proficient with Excel, but I sometimes have a problem getting a spreadsheet organized so I can have the categories I need). Your folders sound great. That's a bit like what I have with my character profiles, only I need them in a folder on my computer.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I've never tried to use Word this way . . . interesting. All my stuff is in Excell. Word might be an interesting option, except that you can't sort it. Sorting and merging are major advantages of Excell IMO. One of my friends showed me how to merge various spreadsheets and I was sooooo happy.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, your comment about three characters named Edward cracked me up (that could be a great comic scene). I had a panic recently where I thought I had named two different little brother characters Ned. Fortunately, only one was a Ned and the other was a Nick, but it's the sort of thing that I live in constant terror of doing.

3:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Merging spreadsheets is way beyond me at this point, Kalen, but I can see how it could be helpful. Do you use the sort option to look at a given year? Or details for a given character? Or--?

Lauren, my mom and I used to find ourselves using a bunch of names starting with a given letter in a given book, totally by accidnet--ws in one book, ds in another, etc... I've learned to try to think carefully about any name, even of a casually mentioned younger brother off at school or someone who only appears on a family tree. That casually mentioned name could turn into a major character in a later book and your stuck with it.

I was trying to find a name for a little girl in my current book, and I thought I'd settled on "Beth" until I realized her aunt (a major character) is named "Bet." You'd think that would have jumped right out at me before I even considered "Beth" as a name :-).

3:40 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

I don't use Excel spreadsheets for my writing because it won't let you put as many characters/words into a cell as MS-Word will. (Yes, I do use Excel *a lot* at the SDJ.)

My Texas vamps' humongous Word table is organized by year so sorting isn't a problem. A lot of my characters' big life events are triggered by real world events anyway. So it was critical to me to get things Right. The year Don Rafael gets out of prison is dictated by things start going really bad in Andalusia - which is NOT when Ferdinand & Isabella finally conquer it, for example. Or I can tell you the exact month when he becomes a vampire because that's when Castile's "two princes" escape with their mother. (If I spoke Spanish, I could probably tell you the day...) The day Helene becomes a vampire is very precisely triggered by the climax of the Vendean civil war during the French Reign of Terror.

All of that is in the Word table.

But I don't sort "interview" information for all my characters into one massive spreadsheet because they're all different. Helene, for example, is a French aristocrat, while Grania is the bastard daughter of a Columbian drug czar, whose mother abandoned her and who grew up in a Roman Catholic orphanage. Her foster father was an Arizona deputy sheriff. My mind boggles at putting their familial relationships into a similar set of boxes.

Diane

9:16 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Oh, and I dump everything else into folders because it's easier!

You should see the folders for my westerns. I love to travel through the west and I've got souvenirs, napkins with ideas, anything. All just tossed in and saved. LOL

Nowhere near as tidy as the massive Word table for my vamps.

Diane

9:19 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating, Diane! I agree about trying to put information into similar sets of boxes. It's one reason (aside from lack of expertise) that I use word files for my character profiles rather than charts or spreadsheets. I can't sum info about everyone up in the same ways somehow.

I love collecting "artifacts" for books--postcards from country houses or museums, souvenirs, reproductions--anything that captures the mood of the book. Its very inspiring to be surrounded by them. And I know Amanda has blogged about much the same thing.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've never tried to use Word this way . . . interesting. All my stuff is in Excell. Word might be an interesting option, except that you can't sort it.

You can sort a Word table, Kalen. Just go to TABLE-->SORT on the toolbar.

(I was a very strange programmer when I made my living at it: I used Word for all sorts of stuff -- like saving program source code versions as Word files to exploit Word's excellent compare facilities, for example.

"I'm a writer," I would tell my colleagues. "I use Word." They were very tolerant, many of them being would-be artists of some sort or another. But that's another story.)

7:30 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's good to know, Pam! I do most things in Word too, though it's mostly for lack of practice with other programs. Most IT people are quite creative--my two friends who designed my website are both in theater.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I'm thinking now a spreadsheet is a great idea--mostly because I feel like I have such a limited number of real Elngish 12th and 13th century first names: Thomas, Richard, Walter, Edward etc.. .

I often use the old secondary character names as a hero's name in a later book (with no connection to the secondary character in the last book). ;-(

Bad idea? I wonder if that bothers readers?

7:09 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Names are so difficult, Kathrynn! In most historical eras, a limited number of given names were in common usage. So it would be quite accurate to have lots of people who knew each other with the same name (for that matter, my freshman drama class of twenty had three guys named Matt). Jane Austen's "Persuasion" has, I think, three characters names "Charles." I don't think it would bother readers unless the characters interacted so much it got confusing.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Of course, the sad and funny truth of the Regency was that 2 out of 3 guys of the upper classes was named George. Which is how you know you're really immersed in the period, imo -- when you start finding George a sexy name.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy (and Lauren, and Kalen) -- I don't know how you ladies do it! All the complex behind the scenes charts and bios and family trees ... I have intense admiration for you all!

1:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Pam, the fact that so many people had the same given names is where historical accuracy can conflict with not confusing the reader :-).

Amanda, you have to keep track of so many real life historical events for your books--do you use charts and maps?

6:23 PM  

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