Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Writing a book is a herculean task, but writing a series is even more difficult. You have to keep track of so many elements: plot, characterization, setting, narrative arcs, subplots, relationships amongst your characters, and which character to kill next—assuming you’re a mystery author, and maybe even if you aren’t. Then there are all those pesky little continuity details that you swear you’ll remember because you created this world and the people who live in it, and no one knows it better than you.
All goes well until you hit “publish” and a reader writes in asking why the hero has blue eyes in Book 3 when they’ve always been a dreamy chocolate color. Then another reader asks when the mother character got a dog, and whatever happened to the cat she had? Now you’re scrambling to find the errors and wondering how you could have forgotten such basic details.
Why should you take the time and effort to track your world?
A compelling story that keeps your reader engaged relies on your efforts to maintain continuity. Continuity creates a bridge between your books, continues the timeline, and maps out your story world. With strong continuity, your fictional world will be more descriptive, more interesting, more unique, and more real.
However you decide to organize the details of your series, be it charts, lists, spreadsheets, or another method, you need to keep track of everything you’ve written about an object, place, or character in your books—even things that don’t actually make it into the story. Let’s look at the reasons why.
To craft descriptions that stand out and ring true
I once attended a talk with a very successful author who confessed that she didn’t write descriptive prose because she didn’t want to forget anything. What a loss to her readers! Descriptions about the physicality of your characters and the world they inhabit bring the story to life for the reader. If your descriptions are too generic, then your world becomes more of a prop than a real place, and your characters become interchangeable and forgettable.
I read broadly in the cozy mystery genre, but I’m embarrassed to say I can only think of two series whose Midwestern settings feel authentic rather than generic. Of course, many cozy mystery series are set in the Midwest, and I’ve read most of them, but the worlds just don’t stand out. They have all blended together into a blur of vague small towns. Maintaining vibrant descriptions over the course of your series will set your world apart.
To establish and maintain the rules of the series
Continuity will also help you follow the rules you’ve already set for your characters and world. It’s not always easy to remember whether your character is afraid of spiders or hates to speak in public, or that the planet your characters inhabit has two suns, and therefore two sunrises and sunsets every single day.
In one series I read, an author had created a secondary character who was allergic to shellfish. Three books later, that character enjoys shrimp for dinner. Without noting these details, it’s easy to forget them—but your readers won’t. Someone out there will also be allergic to shellfish, identify with that character, and then be incensed that the author has shown her eating shrimp.
To save time
Continuity will also help you as an author. A story inevitably changes and morphs as you write it. One author I know starts at the action part of the story and then goes back to write the scenes that lead up to it. Without paying mind to continuity, there’s a very good chance she’ll miss something: Maybe the timeline won’t work quite right, or she changed a name of a new character but the earlier written parts still have the old name. Two different authors I’ve worked with had characters break a bone in their books. It’s hard to have a broken leg on Monday and then have them running after the bad guy the following week.
Without a notebook full of details, you may find yourself spending hours flipping through your earlier books wondering what model of car a character drives, the name of his childhood pet, or whether you’ve already mentioned how far the hospital is from his house.
How do you track your world?
Method 1: Take notes as you go.
Every time you list a descriptor (eye color, job, family members, backstory, etc.), direction (turning left out of the house to go to the library), or personal traits (a character’s attitude towards her job, friends, family, or town; favorite things; etc.) jot it down. Or if jotting it down while you are writing doesn’t work, create your list after you finish drafting a chapter or scene. Be sure to note everything; you don’t know when a detail might become important in later books.
Method 2: Use beta readers.
Recruit a select group of readers who are familiar with your series and can note when the details don’t add up. Also enlist a few readers who don’t know your world so they can point out things that might confuse new readers.
Method 3: Read through the entire story once it is written.
Reading and editing chapter by chapter is all well and good, but a reader experiences your work in its completed form. The author should do this also. Does the story flow? Did the change you made in Chapter 14 create problems with something written in Chapter 3? Does anything need to be added, or did you miss a loose thread? As one author I worked with discovered, it doesn’t pay to hide a bag of drugs in the oven and then forget about them.
Method 4: Hire someone.
Farm out the job of writing down and keeping track of the details for you. Know your strengths. If you don’t have the time or desire to create lists, sheets, or outlines for every character, place, or object in your series, hire someone to do it for you. It will save you time and, quite possibly, your sanity.
Readers rely on continuity.
Continuity is important for any author. Readers depend on continuity to usher them from book to book. They rely on the author to keep her facts straight, to write memorable characters and worlds, and to do this in such a way as to draw them back for more. Keeping a notebook full of details is a must for any author, no matter your genre. Your readers will thank you.