Even When You Build the Road, You May Need a Map

Macondray Lane in San Francisco

Kate Flora, here, writing this from San Francisco, where I’m settled in a flat that belonged to the late writer Oakley Hall, on a funny little pedestrian lane on Russian Hill, looking across the city at Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge.

Except, of course, that I’m trying not to look at the view, because I haven’t yet gotten my homework done. Yes. Even on a trip to the coast, there is homework.

If you polled the members of this blog, you would find that we’re nearly always on deadline. Some of

My workspace here in San Francisco

us, like Paul and Gerry and John and Vicki, have day jobs and still turn out at least a book a year. Others, like Kathy/Kaitlyn, write more than full time and turn out a couple books a year. It means that even when we’re not at our desks, we’re often working on the stories in our heads. And in the midst of writing, there is also research. Lea and Kaitlyn have to do bucket loads of historical research. Barb has put herself on an insane deadline writing about Maine food. Jim is probing the psychology of his characters. Sarah must sometimes go hit herself, or something else, with a hammer.

More than once, I’ve told a library audience that when the book is really cooking, I can go to the grocery store for milk and be found standing, lost, before the frozen peas, because I’ve just realized that what I had my character doing before I left the house was wrong. She wouldn’t do that and now I know how to fix it.

Rosie's Cafe in Cow Hollow

What I’m doing today is rereading the pages I’ve written so far and scribbling notes on the pad I keep beside the keyboard. I’m trying to keep track of more than twenty different characters and my time line. Even though we are imagining these stories so we can tell them to you, over the course of 350 pages, there can be a lot to keep track of. Maybe it’s a sign of age, but I’m finding it harder, in this, the 23rd book I’ve written, to remember what I’ve had my characters doing earlier. Earlier in this book, and in the three books that came before it. So today, as fellow writer Roberta Isleib recently noted about her Key West series on Facebook, I am regretting not having written character studies for the earlier books, and playing catch up for book four.

Here are some of the things I’ve scribbled on the pad as I’m reading through the first 200 pages of the draft:

What are the names of Terry Kyle’s two girls? What are the names of Vince Melia’s twin boys?

Parents and children are the theme of this book, but do I have too many different sets of parents and children facing too many complications in their lives?

When does character “x” enter the story? What have I told you about him? Have I set this up well for what comes next?

Is there enough action in this book or do my characters sit around and talk too much? What about the underlying sense of menace?

The view behind my back

Distraction: a squawking flock of wild green parrots fly past my window.

I am using a lot of ‘foreign’ names in this book. Have I kept them straight? Can my reader keep them straight? Are they ethnically appropriate? Do they have meanings in their own language that would make one name more suited to the character than another?

What happened on the night of the fire? Is that much going on in a single evening probable?

Are the things that are happening in my on-going character’s lives consistent with what has happened in earlier books? Am I assuming all my readers have read the previous books, and failed to give brief but necessary background? How do I build on what has happened before in my characters’ lives?

And then there are the research questions. Along with keeping track of what is happening in the book, I have these notes:

Check out hawala in more detail.

Distraction: Leave the work to e-mail a detective with a question.

Finally track down someone from state Fire Marshal’s office and sit down to answer fire investigation questions. Accelerant? Process? Timeline for report? Interagency cooperation? What clues do I plant at the scene that aren’t there yet?

Feds/Homeland Security/money transfer

Get a teacher to read the scene with Burgess at the school.

Autopsy/intestinal blockage question/anything else about the baby?

That’s not the half of it. Before I started down this road, I used to think that what a writer did was sit at her desk and make it up. Maybe in some areas, but certainly not in crime writing where are our readers are such close observers. Writers use many systems to keep track of all these issues. Evernote. Scrivener. Index cards. Story notebooks. Brief character bios. A detailed outline before writing word one. Story cards. Scene cards. Editing in different colors to track how active the book is. A room with lists on all the walls.

Welcome to our world. When I’m done, my reward is a Manhattan and fried green olives at Campanula, just down Union Street on the corner, or breakfast tomorrow morning at Rosie’s Cafe in Cow Hollow. There’s nothing like a carrot at the end of a stick, especially a delicious San Francisco carrot.

What are your strategies for keeping track?


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5 Responses to Even When You Build the Road, You May Need a Map

  1. John Clark says:

    I knew I should have hidden in your suitcase. I love San Francisco, starting when I went there way back when Haight Ashbury was still relatively undiscovered. It’s the only big city I know that doesn’t feel that way. As for organization, I’m hopeless at it these days, in part because there’s twice as much to be done with 1/3 less brain than I had when I was 45, so sometime during every work day, I look at the pile and shrug, knowing there’s no money in the budget for whips, chains or executioner’s fees. That reassures me and allows me to go forth for one more day.

  2. sandra gardner says:

    thanks so much for this posting re: series characters. I need to do character studies — and keep track so I don’t have to keep referring back to books 1 and 2 while working on 3!

  3. sandra gardner says:

    would love to see a post on doing character studies — what to put in them, examples of them, etc.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Sandy, that’s a great idea. We’ve done stuff about series characters before, but one on our strategies for keeping track is a great topic.

    Thanks for the idea.


  5. L.C. Rooney says:

    Kate, I had to laugh when I read, “Before I started down this road, I used to think that what a writer did was sit at her desk and make it up.” (Of course – how else?? Alas, another fantasy crushed!) The older, wiser me knows that Scrivener is the author’s dream tool! I don’t know how I would be doing this without it. AND I Googled up a coupon worth $10 off, so total cost for Scrivener was $30 – easily worth 2-3x that price, IMO 🙂

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