Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Every tradesman treasures his tools. We writers are no different. Several years ago, one of my children asked me, “If we had a fire, what would you grab?” I answered without hesitation. My computer. My kids have razzed me about that ever since. I told them it was because of all the family photos I have stored on it but they weren’t buying that. They knew it was one of the tools of the trade.
Aside from our physical tools, though, there are a number of systems we develop that are also tools of the trade. One of my clients just sent a color-coded synopsis– her writing map. It’s the tool she uses to work her way through the book
Back when I was actively writing I depended on my systems. When I began a new book, the first thing I would do was set up a binder. My book, Almost Home, that told the story of Mary Chilton of the Mayflower started out with the working title, The Mayflower Nanny. (We say it all the time– don’t get attached to your working title.)
As I began to gather resources and do research I’d take copious notes and those went into the binder. Sometimes the notes would be on odd scraps of paper or napkins so I always made sure my binder had pockets. With this book, which ended up getting an endorsement from the Mayflower Society, I knew I had to be exacting. Those who love this event in American history know every grain of wheat and pea that was loaded onto the ship. A writer had better not get a single detail wrong.
Because there were over 100 souls aboard the ship– most well-documented– I needed to keep track of who they were, in which family groups they began the journey, in which family groups they ended the story, who died, who had babies, where the orphans went and who comprised the two different groups onboard–the “saints” and the “strangers.” That took a complicated character chart. My spreadsheet was over two feet long. This complicated a character chart would not be necessary outside of historical fiction, of course, unless the author were doing a family saga series.
Maps were important to reference as well, especially since in my case there were three separate landings, not one.
And, of course, a timeline. This is a tool every novelist needs and lives by. I can’t tell you the number of editors I’ve heard groan about complicated mistakes in the timeline.
Reference photos are important as well– for the author as he writes but also for the editor to eventually pass on to the cover designers. With this book I took a trip to Plymouth Plantation and took photos of the historical interpreter who portrayed my character. She was perfect.
Those are just a few tools of the trade I used.
A writer of nonfiction uses a whole different set of tools– especially photocopied pages along with the title page for reference in compiling the footnotes and sources.
How about you? What are your tools and systems? How do you manage to keep it all straight? Share your own tools of the trade with us.
A YA historical novelist shares some of her tools of the trade. Click to Tweet
As a writer, what are your tools of the trade? Click to Tweet
I’m impressed, Wendy. Writing about the past requires such careful attention to the details. Good fiction grounded in solid fact.
I admire the people who produced great literature without the tools I use every day, when cut-and-paste required actual paste and an entire manuscript was tied together with ribbon. As my grandson recently stated, “back before they had technology.” Would I have persevered? I’m glad the fullness of time put me in the age of computers, and I don’t have to answer that question.
I know, Shirlee. If we had to write out longhand I’d be sunk since I fight perfectionist tendencies and would spend all my time copying and recopying until I had it correct. And I do remember the days of carbon copies and white out.
As of this WIP, most of my brainstorming notes are in a binder. I created fact sheets for the major characters, which includes notes about historical events they would have been effected by before page one of the novel. That information has been invaluable for character development. For example, the main gentleman in my story has become infinitely more interesting to write after researching what he would ‘lived’ through growing up in Denver in the 1850s and 1860s.
Thanks for sharing your tools, Wendy. I’m now itching to go buy more binders!
Love the forethought you give to the back story. Even if it’s not included in the actual book it shaped who the character is.
Thanks, Jenni. And it does. My main female protagonist is who she is because of what she lived through eight years before the novel begins.
Interesting, Melinda. Doing the historical backstory to get a feel for your characters’ milieu will add depth to them even if you never mention a single detail. We need to do all the research and then make sure we don’t bog the book down with minutiae.
Ella Wall Prichard
Thanks. My binders are for the current draft–sometimes just for one chapter–& info that is relevant at the time. Since I write nonfiction, I have a relevant Manila folder for each subject where I file pertinent notes, articles etc. I have a bookshelf for the books I refer to regularly. I also have a dedicated MacBook Air where folders litter the desktop–blog, photos, interviews, web links, all the related e-books, etc. That is what I’d grab.
It sounds like a good system. Having everything available is invaluable when you get those inevitable editor queries about sources.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
One of the tools of my trade is a man named Theodore Charles. I met his family through the quite fabulous Kiersti Plog.
With Ted and his wife Evie, I’ve had a few adventures, one of which may or may not involve a *slight bend* of New Mexico law.
Ted is in his early seventies, is a retired teacher, and life-long Marine. Ted’s grandfather, Tsi’tnaginnie, was a prisoner at Bosque Redondo, the prison camp where the Navajo people were held from 1863-1868.
He was taken prisoner when he was a little boy. Nothing made my skin crawl or my brain fire up like standing on the spot where the story really lived, talking to a living descendant who wondered aloud what his grandfather endured as a child, surrounded by all that suffering.
Smelling the air, hearing the cottonwood leaves scrape each other in the wind, watching the diamonds on the Pecos River…it was all very pretty.
Climbing the fences and trying not to slice ourselves on the barb wire? That was eerie.
The memories of that day will never leave me.
I also have 26 or 27 research books, a few coil bound books of notes, a white board with chapter details, and a framed photo of Canyon de Chelly. And about 8 zillion bookmarked articles. Oh, and a few goodies mailed to me by a park ranger who spent 15 years at Bosque Redondo. Gotta love cloud storage.
Here’s a neato tidbit, the camp my kids go to/work at, was first settled in 1611, by the French. Maybe that’s why the Mayflower went further south. 😉
Love this! I hope to read the fruit of your adventures one day. 🙂
You’ve got some great resources (and fun stories!), Jennifer!
What kinds of systems do you use to capture those first person stories? When I wrote Shadow of His Hand (holocaust survivor) I met with my now octogenarian main character for a week in a hotel in Minnesota and took notes and taped all our talks. It not only helped with getting the story, it helped with the way she talked and the way she saw the world. I always archive all my interview tapes.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Ahh, I’m so glad you asked that.
I recorded some of his stories on my phone. And I filmed him talking. His cadence of speech is very mellow, but when he tells traditional stories, his voice takes on a musical timbre. Kiersti, what do you think about Ted’s storytelling voice?
I think what you said, Jennifer–mellow, yet musical. There’s a certain settledness I’ve noticed in Native American voice and storytelling…it’s hard to put my finger on it, but maybe it partly comes from their understanding of time (to loop back to a link you posted earlier, Jennifer!) and the resulting lack of feeling rushed. What do you think?
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I totally agree!!
I never felt rushed with them, not at all. Especially once Ted started telling a story. I’d just get comfortable1
Interesting question…and Wendy, I’m really impressed by your organization, and the success it’s brought.
This is going to sound stupid, but I keep everything in my head. No notes, no extra files, nothing (with one significant exception, shown below). This, for a few reasons.
* For me, writing dossiers on characters creates a wall between me, as their chronicler, and their own reality. It calls into question my right to write about them, if I can’t keep the facts of their lives straight.
* In writing historically I only write about settings in which I have as much expertise as the most nit-picky reader I can think of, and this pretty well limits me to certain aspects of WW2 and the Civil War. Research is basically fact-checking, under this aegis.
* To a certain degree, I’m embarrassed by my writing, and writing notes makes the process unreal for me, a game of “let’s pretend I’m a real live writer!” I spent a lot of years in places that did not encourage creative work.
* I write for people like me; I’m not a bean-counter.
*The sole exception is that I will deliberately write in scenes or backstory that I know will be deleted later, to help flesh out the characters. Writing it in the same voice helps (and the ‘same voice’ thing might be why I don’t like notes). These are written with the same care and craftsmanship (well, for me) as the rest of the story, and are edited in tandem. Eventually they’ll be made available on my “once and future website” for readers to get to know the characters better, if they choose.
Purposely writing in scenes you know will be deleted … amazes me! You are so strong. Deleted scenes make me weep. 🙂 And I think keeping them is special for readers. I read a deleted scene just recently from one of my favorite books … made my heart happy! 🙂 And I had to laugh that you began a sentence with “This is going to sound stupid” because everything you write is so over my head. You keep me climbing the ladder, Andrew!
Shelli, thank you! The ‘deleted scenes’ thing holds a special resonance for me, because, while it looks like the future I hoped to see will become a deleted scene in the temporal story, I believe that God has saved it. And I believe that in His good time, and in His presence, I will experience the innocent and unrestrained joys he had planned for me, had illness not intervened.
Hmmm, makes me think. There are a few backstory scenes from my very real life that I would like to delete. Where’s the key for that?
As far as the east is from the west, Shirlee. There’s a Dude who’s got the key. He’s got one of those old-fashioned phone numbers, like, from the 40s, you know? It’s John316. Give Him a buzz.
Andrew, it’s a gift to keep all of your story elements and aspects in your head. I could never do that. My mind is too easily distracted. 🙂
I’m impressed that you can keep the details in your head. I (obviously) do not have a photographic memory and need my crib notes. Besides once you have a stack of books behind you and an interviewer asks you a question about a book you wrote ten years before you may find you need something to get the little gray cells going again.
And about feeling like a complicated system is “pretending to be a real writer,” I’m guessing every writer feels that way no matter where he or she is in there career. You’d be surprised at some of the people who’ve whispered, “I hope nobody ever finds out I’m faking it.”
After reading several historical novels recently, I greatly admire the writers. The research, the detail. My recent WIP is contemporary. Foster care statistics, comments from foster children, and real ministry events taking place in Texas were valuable tools to help develop my MC and story. My main tools and systems? Yes, my computer and my phone. I’ve used my phone for taking notes more recently than I would have thought. And my two full spiral notebooks. I also used my tablet, more than I ever thought possible, to edit. I put my work on it as an e-book, over and over, and read and read. And I can’t leave off thefreedictionary.com … I use this website a tremendous amount, alongside B&S. How did I keep it straight? My synopsis, the order of main events that clearly had to take place, kept me straight. 🙂
Yeah, I took notes on the phone, too. Then Barbara took my Sharpies away.
I didn’t realize you were writing about foster care. As a fundraiser for a children’s ministry, that’s near and dear to my heart. Looking forward to the day you’re published!
Sarah, that foster care is near and dear to your heart is encouragement to me. Yes … I wrote a cover story article on this … it’s in this July’s WMU’s Missions Mosaic magazine. The story–interviewing those involved and hearing from the children–touched my heart so much … I knew it would be the inspiration for my novel! 🙂
Sounds like a system that works! Funny how technology changes us. When I wrote Almost home– just a decade or so ago– I had neither smart phone nor tablet.
This is why I don’t write the kind of historical fiction that requires extensive research 😉
For my novels I have a now multi-page “family tree” that includes everyone’s full name, birth date and key facts (marriage, death, milestones along the way) along with how they are related to others on the tree. I also do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis as I write. It’s just three or four sentences summing up each chapter often with a mention of what month it is. If there are interruptions in the writing flow, I can easily look back and see where I left off and what’s happened thus far. Sort of plotting in reverse! With this last book I even color-coded sentences to represent story lines so I could make sure they were evenly represented. Oh, this makes me happy . . .
Sarah, you are definitely one of those writers I greatly admire.
Oh, I love the idea of color-coding story lines, Sarah. What a great idea!
Did you recognize yourself, Sarah, in my opening blog paragraphs?
When you said “writing map” I wondered!
Oh, kindred spirit!!
I love my binders. I love my spreadsheet character charts. I love my timelines. And my plot charts. And my clear pockets for museum brochures. And my research binders…
Yes, I have Evernote “binders” now as well (which saves me GOBS of money for printing), but nothing beats my physical binder.
Thankful to have experienced your love affair with organization, Sarah. 🙂 Each time I hear you speak I’m introduced to more productive ways to build a novel from the ground up.
I keep intending to master Evernote. I’ve fussed around with it. I know I’d love it but I can’t seem to carve out the block of time I need to focus on it. I wish I could just take a day-long seminar and come away knowing everything.
I loved Sarah Sundin’s writing conference workshop about the binder method! I’m so thankful I took her advice about printing web pages and putting them in a binder, because one of my major research sites for my first book disappeared off of the internet. Thanks to Sarah, I still have all of the detailed info catalogued in my handy-dandy binder.
I do most of my character and setting sheets in Scrivener now. It’s convenient to have them available at the touch of a key, without even clicking away from my manuscript. I can even paste photos right into scenes so they’re sitting alongside as I write. I’m falling in love with Scrivener a little more with each feature I discover.
Wendy, I’m truly impressed by the level of research a historical novelist puts into a story and making sure it’s accurate. Amazing!
Scrivener is my friend. I’ve found myself doing a lot of research and using the research part of this app to keep track of everything. I have a notebook in my purse where notes go that come to mind as I’m out and about.
My phone’s Voice Memo is hugely important to me when an idea comes to me while I’m driving. I use it for brainstorming sometimes too, when I’m driving. 😉
When I’m in the plotting process of a story, I use color-coded Sharpies for different characters.
Oh, and I make a spreadsheet to keep track of the dates of my scenes, as well as who’s in it and a very brief scene description so I can keep track of what’s happening in the story.
Jeanne, I need to learn the voice memo. Right now, I just ask the girls to type my idea into the text box for me. They are so sweet to do whatever I ask, but I know it gets old! 🙂
When I’m driving, that is. 🙂
And Voice Memo is so much better when you get an idea in the middle of the night. I used to wake up to these illegible scribbles I could neither decipher nor remember.
I have yet to learn VoiceMemo, but I should! After waking to one-too-many of those illegibly scribbled “notes to self”, I started texting myself with middle-of-the-night ideas. The problem with that is that I fall back asleep after sending the text, and when it arrives back at my phone a few minutes later, I inevitably wake up panicked about why someone would be texting me in the middle of the night. 😉 I am my own worst enemy.
You made me laugh out loud. Been there, Wendy. 🙂
Kristen Joy Wilks
I’ve made a folder called “How to Write a Novel in Less Than 10 Years” and I put all of the tools and systems that I have found helpful into that file. Yes, I am still revising my first novel which I started writing in 2003 and have finished more times than I remember. It is so nice to have the tricks I have learned all in one place so that I can take a peek whenever I start a new project and determine what tools I will need.
The title of your folder made me chuckle, Kristen. Your diligence is to be admired.
Sounds like a how-to book contained right in that folder should you ever decide to write it. 🙂
I’m a binder babe also. Pockets, tabs, the works for each book, including faux cover and working title. But in addition, I have a file of character names I’ve used. After eight books, I realized I could easily duplicate a name of a leading or background character, so to prevent that I now have a chart. I also have a collection of names that strike my fancy for use in future novels.
Davalynn, I love this: Binder Babe! I love my binders too. 🙂
You are so smart, Davalynn. Lauraine Snelling is forever bemoaning the lack of foresight in laying out her Red River series. Had she known she’s be writing her umpteenth Bjorkland novel she’d have kept family trees and names used and. . . and. . .
Wendy, I would grab my computer, too — even though the files are remotely backed up to two cloud-based storage systems.
I know but the machine itself almost becomes our best friend, right?
Indeed. I do treasure my computer. It is more than just a tool for writing.
I rarely comment but daily I read all YOUR comments and always make this blog a priority read. I want to let Andrew know that God has impressed on my heart to pray for him often (about a week ago I began praying in earnest for you, sometimes several times a day). I pray that God will ease your pain and minister to you with His tender touch. This is God-directed because I don’t even know your story except what I have gleaned from your comments. It is very intentional praying. You have a love for God that speaks through the suffering, and your candor is refreshing. Wanted you to know this. Everyone, have a blessed evening.
Norma, I appreciate that so very, very much.
Tools of trade is a term generally used in bankruptcy law to determine what property a person would commonly use for the purpose of making a living, as items that are tools of trade are separately exempt from attachment with an additional amount above that normally given for a person’s property.