December 8 – 14: “How do you organize the details to ensure consistency?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5For many, it takes months to draft a novel and consistency can suffer. Names, vehicles, time required for a familiar walk may vary. This week ask ITW members Jaden Terrel, Suzanne Chazin, C. Hope Clark, Patricia Stoltey, Jerry Amernic, Reece Hirsch and Arthur Kerns: “How do you organize the details to ensure consistency?”

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Land Of Careful Shadows coverSuzanne Chazin is the author of two thriller series. Her first, about the FDNY, include The Fourth Angel, Flashover and Fireplay. The series has been called “searing and emotionally explosive” (USA Today), and her heroine, fire investigator Georgia Skeehan, “incredibly strong” (People Magazine). Chazin’s newest mystery series stars Jimmy Vega, an upstate New York cop navigating the world of the undocumented. The first book in the series, Land of Careful Shadows, is due out in hardcover from Kensington on Nov. 25th. It has already garnered advance praise from Lee Child, Julia Spencer-Fleming, S.J. Rozan, Reyna Grande, Maggie Barbieri and Publishers Weekly, which called the book, “timely and engrossing,” and Jimmy Vega, “engaging, psychologically complex.” A former journalist, Chazin’s essays and articles have appeared in American Health, Family Circle and the New York Times.

last witnessJerry Amernic’s new novel The Last Witness is about the last living survivor of the Holocaust in 2039, but the world is abysmally ignorant of events from the last century. Amernic has produced a video showing how university students today don’t know much either. His biblical-historical thriller Qumran will be out soon, to be followed by the re-release of his earlier novel Gift of the Bambino, and later next year another historical thriller called Medicine Man.

 

DeadWrongFront 264x408Patricia Stoltey is the author of two amateur sleuth mysteries, The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders, as well as her newly released standalone suspense novel, Dead Wrong. She is co-editor of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog and maintains her personal blog where she frequently features guest authors and book reviews. Patricia lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and the very demanding Katie Cat.

 

river of glass (3)Shamus award finalist Jaden Terrell is the author of three Jared McKean mysteries and a contributor to Now Write! Mysteries, a collection of exercises published by Tarcher/Penguin for writers of crime fiction. Terrell is the special programs coordinator of the Killer Nashville Thriller, Mystery, and Crime Literature Conference and a recipient of the 2009 Magnolia Award for service to the Southeastern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

 

C. Hope Clark is author of The Carolina Slade Mysteries and the newly released Murder on Edisto, book one of The Edisto Island Mysteries. She’s published The Shy Writer and The Shy Writers Reborn, nonfiction motivational books, and is editor of FundsforWriters.com, chosen Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers for 14 years. She lives on Lake Murray in central South Carolina when she’s not strolling Edisto Beach.

 

intrusionReece Hirsch is the author of three thrillers that draw upon his background as a privacy and cybersecurity attorney. His first book, THE INSIDER, was a finalist for the 2011 Thriller Award for Best First Novel. Hirsch is a partner in the San Francisco office of an international law firm and co-chair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of 826 National. He lives in the Bay Area with his wife and a small, unruly dog.

 

africaArthur Kerns is a retired FBI supervisory special agent and past president of the Arizona chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). His award-winning short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies. He is a book reviewer for the Washington Independent Review of Books. In March 2013 Diversion Books, Inc. published his espionage thriller, The Riviera Contract and in May 2014 the sequel, The African Contract.

 

26 Comments
  1. I begin with a short one-page story line to have in mind who’s in the novel and where it takes place. Then I write a short bio for each character. Physical descriptions, habits (smoking—what cigar/cigarette, drink—scotch, martinis), what type of residence, and physical characteristics, like having a lisp or a limp, and color of eyes and hair. I don’t know how many times I get the eye colors wrong but my critique members remind me. Oh, and how about that scar on the cheek, right or left side? Back to the bio sheet.
    Places, like towns, villages, I resort to maps, goggle, and tour books for foreign countries. All piled on my desk in a particular spot. I kept journals during foreign travels, but still have to double check, especially if it’s been a while since I visited the place. After time recollection of details fades.
    If your character is traveling, details are important. Your reader may have taken the same trip. Therefore, for my thriller, Riviera Contract, I had to know how long it takes to travel by train from Paris to Marseille. Going by the local or express? From which Paris station do you leave, and what is the name of the station in Marseille?
    Makes and models of boats you use, or year and model of car. Have to be consistent with the actual manufacture’s product and also say your particular boat. Does that jib on your sailboat always hang up, do you use nylon or hemp line?
    Guns—be especially careful about makes, models, size, feel, and caliber, number of rounds it can hold. Revolver or automatic? Again, put this in the bio sheet. Readers enjoy correcting you.
    On the computer, I keep separate documents for all of the above and I constantly add, change, and refer to them. Even so, editors and writing group members will always find a discrepancy.

    1. From a reader who enjoys correcting the author:

      I believe you mean Google, not Goggle.

      Very helpful tip regarding the bios.

      Thank you.

  2. With my two amateur sleuth mysteries, I kept track of all the details about my main characters on a spreadsheet. For authors writing a series, I’m sure spreadsheets and notebooks full of character sketches are critical for continuity.

    In Dead Wrong, a multiple point of view standalone suspense novel, the various characters are in Florida, California, and Colorado, so the hardest part was keeping track of time zones so I didn’t mix up the “who did what when.”

    My current work in process has quite a few characters, so I have a list of names with ages and important facts about each person.

    Each story seems to be unique in the critical items that must be tracked, so being flexible about spreadsheets, notebooks, lists, and sticky notes is a necessity.

  3. Wow! Everyone is so thorough. I must say that I sort of just remember stuff (though I do have specific birthdates for characters in relation to each other so I don’t mix up ages). But maybe I haven’t had to be so thorough because my first serie–about the FDNY–was three books written one a year and I’m just wrapping up my second novel on my new series (the first in the series just came out). So perhaps I don’t have to keep track of as much. I’m considering writing a novella for my first series and I have to say, I’m a little scared about going back after so much time because I really don’t remember. Perhaps I SHOULD have written more down!

    1. “Just sort of remembering stuff” is me as well Suzanne. For my main, continuing, characters any way. They all live in my head and carry on their own conversations. In some ways they’re more real to me than “real” people (should I be worried?). It would be quite impossible to forget any detail. Secondary characters are another thing. If I were organized enough I’d create a chart (I keep telling myself I will) of eye colors, scars, sexual orientation, etc etc. One day!

  4. Suzanne

    How coincidental! I have a three-book series (third was out early 2014), and released the first in a new series in October. My current series is more detailed than the other, so I started keeping a spreadsheet of all characters and their names, height, eye color, occupation, how long they’ve lived on Edisto Beach (the important setting in my series), and age. I also keep up with the names of the homes since beach homes often have characteristic names in addition to addresses. It adds flavor.

    But I’m also having to keep a detailed timeline on this one. The crime happens in a two-week period each year, so advancement of the plot is important along that two-week continuum.

    In addition to several spreadsheets, I have a map of Edisto Beach on my wall next to a dry erase board where I post characters’ names, killer’s motivation, house names, and an important column “Items to Remember.” These are the loose ends that will need tying up, the red herrings, the clues, the quirks.

    I did none of this in the first series, but I find myself having to do it in the second. Either I’m writing more detailed, or I’m getting older.

    1. Love your last line, Hope. I wonder if when I was young, I could keep more in my head. But there’s also the wonderful little “find” button on the edit tab that I love. Sometimes, when I can’t remember a detail, I just go back to the place in the manuscript where it appeared to make sure I am consistent.
      This doesn’t work series-to-series however. I have a secondary character in my new series with the last name of “Greco.” I should have looked at my first series more closely because I have a secondary character in the first series named Greco. The first one is Frank Greco and he’s chief of the FDNY in that series. The second is Lou Greco and he’s a suburban NY detective–so they could be related, I suppose??? I just wish I’d remembered!

  5. Hi all. Readers do pay attention and many, I’m sure, are far too quick to point out mistakes. I caught a firearm blunder by one of the most prolific writers of the modern era. I don’t know why but it bothered me that a revolver magically transformed into an automatic, but it did. It’s especially odd that he made this mistake since his style is to write a chapter at a time – and edit to perfection – before moving on.

    1. Victoria Hanley, a fantasy writer for young readers, tells about one of her novels where a horse changed colors sometime during the story. She and her editors didn’t catch it, but the readers sure did. 😀

    2. Bob –

      Because I have a critique group that does a chapter at a time, I tend to write and polish a chapter at a time – to a certain degree. That form of writing lends itself to mistakes, I think. I compartmentalize too much within each chapter, and I’ve gotten cars, eye color and name spellings wrong in drafts. I love it when I find an eager critique wanting to read several chapters at a time.

  6. Well I must that I’ve never put together a spreadsheet or anything like that for a novel or even for a book of non-fiction, and I’ve written several of those. No story boards either. Here’s how I work. I get an idea, I start doing research, and then I write. It’s as simple as that, but it can take a long time. Current example. For many years I had this idea that one day there will be one last living survivor of the Holocaust. I did research. I read books. And when at last I was ready, I began to write. But the story constantly twists and turns with each character and with each new development, and all this is going on in the near-future story line which is set in the year 2039, and also in the flashbacks which take place in a Jewish ghetto in Poland and at Auschwitz where my character is a little boy who has lost all his family. So, I rewrite and I rewrite. After being relatively happy with what I thought was the first draft, I left it like a fine wine to age. I had an agent who wanted to shop it around, and I said no, it’s still missing something. Later I went back into it again, refined it — and this is when it became a thriller. I made more changes and eventually it wound up as The Last Witness. Only then did I feel the thing worked. But the whole process took years. It also involved interviews with real-life, former child survivors and lots of other people too. Writing a novel, especially this one, was more like a mission.

  7. I wish I was organized enough to keep a character “bible” to make sure that I keep all of those little details straight. I am not, and by now I think it’s safe to say that I never will be. Right now I don’t need it so much because I’m writing the third of my Chris Bruen books featuring a former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor and I couldn’t get those characters out of my head if I tried. However, if I come back to these characters after a book or two away from them I know I’m going to have to do a lot of text searches to get everything right! One thing I really appreciate is that my proofreader creates character profiles for each book and watches for inconsistencies. It’s on me, though, to maintain continuity from book to book in the series.

    1. I wish I had a proofreader who would write character profiles for me. My “profiles” are bare bones — so when I re-used a character from Dead Wrong in my wip, I didn’t have much to go on. When I went back to read the published novel to make sure I was consistent, I discovered my character was 5’11” tall. I would have saved myself some changes if I’d had a more complete character description. Sometimes we learn the hard way.

      1. I don’t have a proofreader per se, but I do have ‘readers’ — people whom I select because I know they will provide me with good, honest feedback. I have them go over a novel when I feel it’s ready to show someone. However, one person I used for my current novel did perform the services of a proofreader and fact-checker for all my flashbacks, and he was invaluable.

  8. The truth is, when I am reading a series and I catch a small mistake that a writer has made with a transition or piece of information about a character, it really doesn’t bother me that much (though it does take me out of the trance of feeling that the story is “real.”) I feel the same about typos.
    I am far more bothered when the character does something out of character. That’s the sort of detail that frustrates me.

    1. Hi Suzanne — and yet in a Donald Maass workshop a couple of years ago, he recommended we think of something our character would never, ever do….and then have our character do exactly that. I can see it might be a little disconcerting for a reader, but it sure is fun as a writer (and might just provide the perfect “twist” to a plot).

      1. Patricia, I was at that same workshop and it almost felt like being in therapy. But I think the point Donald Maass was trying to make was that the writer of a thriller should always strive to create tension.

        1. I was was at that one too. I love Don Maass; I think he may be the best writing teacher of all time. I had a problem with that bit of advice initially, because I lit on the obvious things: Jared would never rape someone, he would never murder a child, and so on, but I think the point is less about making your character do something abhorrent than it is about finding the thing that would MAKE your character do something he or she normally would not. That’s very powerful.

          Maybe you say your character would never commit a cold-blooded murder. What would it take to change that? What if the villain is holding the character’s child hostage and will kill him or her unless your character kills someone else? Does it make a difference if the proposed victim is a criminal or an innocent? Does it change things if your character absolutely knows he can’t get to the bad guy in time?

          The other question Don asked during that workshop that made a huge difference for me was, “What if your character failed?” How would it change the story? Would it be more powerful?

          Even if you don’t end up using what you come up with, it opens your brain up in all kinds of interesting ways.

    2. I totally agree with what Suzanne says about a character doing something that is out of character, unless it suits the story. But I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to stuff like this. If a homicide detective is 6’5″ and 320 pounds, he better not be 6’3″ and 280 pounds later on in the novel. And it’s the same with the historical element. I use lots of history in my novels and go to a lot of trouble to make sure that I’m not ‘bending’ history. Things have to be accurate. Still, not all writers agree with this approach. Some are not so worried about what may be minor details.

      1. Since I write cyberthrillers, I work very hard to get the technical details of hacking, cybercrime and data security right (without getting too techy about it). If I play fast and loose with those aspects of the story, I know someone is going to call me out on it. Since you write police procedurals, Jerry, I imagine that you’d better be correct when it comes to firearms.

        1. Yes, Reece. I agree. When it comes to the bread and butter of your area of expertise, you have to be completely and totally accurate. When I was doing my FDNY series, the firefighting details had to be exactly correct. And now, with my series on the undocumented, I need to know the law and make sure my Spanish and idioms are correct. On the other hand, I believe that sometimes you have to go with plausibility over accuracy so sometimes, I know the exact way something SHOULD go, but it’s boring and I know the exciting way I want it to go and if it’s plausible, I’ll do it.

  9. When I started my Jared McKean series, I had a beautiful blue notebook with silver letters that said, “The Big Book of Jared.” It had character bios, timelines, house plans, photos of things the characters might have or wear, and any little details I thought I might need to remember for subsequent books. Of course, you can imagine what happened. I lost it. Now when I need to remember something from a previous book, I have to go back and look it up.

    I keep telling myself I’ll recreate that notebook one of these days. It was really useful.

    I try to keep up with the technology he would use, but I made the worst blunder in my second book when I changed a Glock to a Taurus and back again. A Glock doesn’t have an external safety, but a Taurus does, so guess what I didn’t remember to change when I switched back to a Glock. Fortunately, you can get a custom Glock with a safety, so I made sure to mention that he had one in the next book.

    1. And readers who know guns are the absolute biggest sticklers for details, aren’t they? I’m not a gun person so I keep my use of guns to a minimum in my stories. But I remember once when I was in my early twenties submitting a short story to a magazine and I got a detail about a rifle wrong (in those pre-Google days when information actually required sweat). The editor rejected it with a three-page letter lecturing me on my lack of knowledge about rifles. He didn’t say a word about the rest of the story.

      1. You make a good point, Suzanne. If a topic is not your forte (i.e., guns), play to your strengths and lessen the notice on that you do not know. Even when we research, if we aren’t natural or well-versed, we tend to make mistakes. I put as much of what I know into a story as possible so that it feels more authentic.

        1. The whole point is to make it convincing for the reader. I don’t know anything about guns either, but if one of my characters is a cop or a soldier or a member of the SS in World War II, that person better be using the right kind of gun. Sometimes it helps to have a person who is an expert go over those sections to make sure they are accurate.

          1. That’s true, Jerry. Research is vital. Still, like Hope says, I think it helps to play to your strengths. There are some areas I can finesse with a lot of research. But there are some things you just have to have done yourself to know. David Baldacci gave a talk at my local library Friday night and I was impressed that he did an Army Ranger jump to see what one felt like. I’m sure he could have interviewed people–but he probably did get a very different sense of things doing the jump himself!

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