It’s the middle of the night when inspiration jolts you awake. What a great idea for a new writing project, you say. Leaping from bed, you start writing down ideas so you don’t fall asleep and then forget everything by morning (BTDT). The words line up effortlessly. The sentences are concise, clever, and lead effortlessly to the next gem. Finally, with notes appended for future scenes, the muse departs and you return to a self-satisfied rest.
Desirous of a new project, I opened a file I created under the very circumstances just described. It was to be my attempt at a crime thriller but life intrudes….. I expected to open this up and have a good laugh over my midnight ramblings. The start isn’t half bad, might be worth a go. I read through to get re-acquainted. Halfway through the second reading I discovered my main character had departed work in one car and arrived home in another. Correcting the glaring error, my next move was to create a file called COMPENDIUM. I’d been through this before.
While writing Bonner’s Road West, as the cast of characters, locations, and story lines grew to unmanageable proportions, I discovered memory to be a fickle and spiteful companion. Retention fades as more junk accumulates in the attic. Attempting to place one word artfully after another; I’d find myself recalling phrases or keywords and thanking Word for the ‘find’ menu. I’d be clacking away on the keyboard, churning out inspired prose and suddenly some detail about the character’s history seemed oddly out of place with something written weeks before. Where did that scout say he’d almost frozen to death the winter before? If you write, you know the little nagging voice in your head that won’t shut up until you find out.
An author needs to manage the story much like a director runs his stage. Bonner’s Road West is historical fiction so fact checking and consistency were vital to maintaining a cohesive tale. Whether you write sci-fi, fantasy, or crime fiction, every story has characters and a place. The place may only exist in your mind but you have put players on a stage. They enter and exit the story but they don’t go to their day job. They sit offstage playing cards or gossiping. When they reappear they need to look, sound, and act like they did when last they trod the boards of your story. Readers will notice if your character limps off with a bad left leg and returns to dance the night away. One of the more famous gaffes is in Robinson Crusoe as Robby gamely swims naked out to the shipwreck and fills his pockets with stores. The details keep the storyline intact as the play moves from scene to scene.
How can I avoid such literary embarrassment, says the aspiring author? The compendium is your friend, says I. A compendium keeps the story straight and could have put some pants on Defoe’s hero. I keep mine ordered by character. This worked for me because my characters were always on the move and maps were readily available. I could put a pin in the map and write a paragraph of notes about the locale and what happened. The characters remained and carried the story so it was natural to list the players and their characteristics. Each time a new character was ‘hired’, I added them to an alphabetical list of each character and wrote several lines, sometimes before the detail was needed, about where they came from, what horse they rode, what weapons they carried, whether they could read and write and such detail as might be necessary to keep the illiterate teamster from reading the last rites over a fallen comrade. Do it for yourself as much as your reader. You don’t want to awake at three in the morning as that nagging little voice asks where your character’s pants are.