The Power of Lists

list2 (300x193)I make lists. I can’t remember when I didn’t. I do remember my father telling me when I was quite young that the best way to make a hard decision is to make a list of pros and cons and look at which one is longer.

I share this list-making habit with a great many many fictional sleuths, including the four female detectives I have created over the years. Liss MacCrimmon, the contemporary sleuth I write about as Kaitlyn Dunnett, makes more lists than I do. In the mysteries I write as Kathy Lynn Emerson, all three of my historical detectives, from Susanna, Lady Appleton, in the Face Down series, to Diana Spaulding in my 1888 Quartet, to the soon to be in print Rosamond Jaffrey, use lists to help them solve crimes.

As a reader, I relate to fictional sleuths who make lists. One of my favorites is Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody Emerson (no relation). In The Curse of the Pharaohs, she decides to “make a little chart, setting forth the various motives and means and so on.” By Deeds of the Disturber, she remarks that her brain “works too swiftly to be easily organized,” but she falls back on list making anyway, making one that consists of two columns, “QUESTIONS” and “WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM.” She comes up with nine entries, ranging from “Were the splashes of dark liquid human blood?” (“Inquire of Inspector Cuff.”) to “Who is the lunatic in the leopard skin?” (“Catch the scoundrel in the act.”). In the end, this list does not prove particularly useful, but it does illustrate the way the character’s mind works and provides both a quick review of what she knows about the case to that point and a bit of comic relief.

todolist (212x300)In real life, I rely on lists. Some serve as powerful motivators. Others just help me keep track of things. The 5×7 lined tablet beside my computer is my primary personal to-do list. There can be a real sense of satisfaction in crossing off a completed task. I don’t really need to write “cont. R#2” to remember to spend time on the next bit of my current work in progress (the second Rosamond Jaffrey mystery), but I do like running a line through that notation when I finish my pages for the day. Ditto for “ans. email” and “stretches.” That last refers to the hour or so I spend, six days out of seven, doing an assortment of stretches to relieve arthritis pain. It includes a stint on the stationary bike that doubles as reading time.

This list, broken down by day of the week, has a sub-list going on the same page. Those are items I really need to do sometime soon, but which will be squeezed into spare moments in between the items on the main list. Some of these, like VACUUM and DUST, may end up being moved along from page to page without much hope of being crossed off until the dust bunnies are bigger than our cats . . . and we have BIG cats. Still, putting an item anywhere on the page means I see it every time I look at the list. Eventually, all the items gets crossed off, even the housework.

list4 (254x300)When I’m working on a mystery novel, two other lists are essential. One is a list of characters, with sub lists of suspects and motives much like the ones my sleuth will eventually be making. Initially, though, the purpose of the character list is to work out their names. Listing all the characters highlights quite a few potential problems right at the start of the project. Are there too many characters whose names start with the same letter? Have I given a character a name that doesn’t fit his or her personality (unless that’s the point)? From the character list, I make individual character sheets and keep them in alphabetical order, then rearrange my character list “in order of appearance.” Somewhere along the way, I give every suspect a secret. This secret may or may not come out in the course of the investigation, but it helps me get a handle on what that person is like.

The other list that is a must when I write a mystery is one I call “who knows what when?” Creating this list avoids all sorts of continuity problems, but it can’t be compiled until a good chunk of the writing has already been done. At that point, I read through what I have written and make notes. If I’ve developed a really complicated plot, the list sometimes expands into a chart. Looking at it helps me tie up all the loose ends, too. And sometimes it points up things that I can change to make the story work even better.

So that’s my take on the power of lists. How about you folks reading this post? Do you make lists? Or have a favorite list-making detective? Or (bonus question!), have you ever seen the classic mystery movie, The List of Adrian Messenger? Leave an answer or comment to be entered in a drawing for an advance reading copy of the next Liss MacCrimmon mystery, Ho-Ho-Homicide. Cut-off date is the 4th of July. The winner’s name will be announced in the July 5-6 Weekend Update.


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24 Responses to The Power of Lists

  1. Gram says:

    The List of Adrian Messenger is one of my favorite movies. It is one of the few movies that for me is better than the book.

    • I’m trying to remember if I ever read the book. I think I must have, back when the movie first came out, but it’s the movie, and it’s oh-so-British significant clue, that I remember best. And the cameo appearances, of course.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Were we separated at birth? Or is it just that writers have to be organized? I have quarterly lists (“goals”) and weekly lists (“polish the brass in the dining room!” “write ten pages each day”) and daily lists (those ten pages, mainly). There’s a character list for my current WIP taped to the side of my computer screen. (My characters, too, have been known to make lists. A good way of summarizing and reminding readers ….) And that’s just the beginning … But isn’t it wonderful to see a list with all those “to do” tasks crossed out!

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Fabulous post, Kathy. No wonder you’re so good at what you do. I’m still scrabbling frantically for the names of a character I used earlier in the book, then writing it in the margin of one of my other lists. My lists have a palimpsest quality to them by the time the day is done.

    Going forward, I am going to try and heed your advice.


  4. Barb Ross says:

    I’m a list maker, too. To do lists mostly, though like Lea’s they’re divided into the longer and shorter term. My husband and I meet every couple of months or so to compare lists and of course, try to offload personal stuff onto the other person’s!

    My favorite fictional listmaker is Kinsey Milhone and her index cards, but I always feel Sue Grafton in the background, struggling with HER index cards of character, plot and clues.

  5. Thomas L Walcher says:

    I make lists of books that I want to read and purchase. At the beginning of the month, I go thru my list of books to be purchased and rank them. I then only allow myself to buy at most 10 books.

  6. Lois Bartholomew says:

    Great post. As a YA author just starting to write my first adult mystery I found a lot of useful tips. And I’m a list maker, too. I never accomplish much until I make a list. Thanks!

  7. I too am a list maker. I wrote a recent blog about that at I was trying to get ready to attend a conference and had to write a blog post. I combined the two. 🙂 I don’t use lists much in my writing (other than to say do it. LOL) But I’ve used charts to help me remember that who knew what when thing. I got off track in my current WIP and thought I’d lose my mind before I got it straighten out. Now, I really need to take time and fix the chart so it fits with the story. Yikes, dread that, but better now at 30 K than getting to 60 K and finding I’ve messed up again and really have to start all over with the writing and the charting. Thanks for the good ideas. Six and 1/2 books, and I’ve never had my characters make lists. Going to take a look at that idea, too. I’ll FB and Tweet. This is very good.

  8. Loved your blog, Marsha. I think between us, we’ve covered all the essentials of list making.

  9. Anne W Gooding says:

    Lists literally saved my life during a long number of years when a medication gave me simulated dementia. I needed to keep it a secret so I didn’t get locked up somewhere. I always had my small notepad in my pocket with a pen slid down the spine. It told me what to do and when. It held shopping lists, to-do lists, and made me sound like I knew what I was doing during the long haul. Thanks to lists of everything I ate, drank, and meds I took and when, I finally figured out what was doing it to me and had the documentation to prove it.

    Now, I’m hoping to get back to writing again. 🙂

    I cannot live without lists!

  10. Judith Mehl says:

    What a phenomenally organized writer you are! I’ve attempted to do the same type of lists, but inevitably the sheets of paper get lost. I have vowed to enter everything into the computer and as things change, the computer lists don’t. I will try your notebook idea–and stick with it. I guess that part is important.
    Thanks for your suggestions, and I would love an ARC of your next book.

    • I’ve tried making to-do lists on the computer, but then I never take the time to find the file and look at them. I end up printing them out. I do put my character lists in the computer, though. And I keep inventories that way–lists of books and DVDs I own. I also have a “want list” of books and DVDs that aren’t yet available so I remember to buy them when they are. That’s one I type in and then print out and stick in a file folder. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go paperless.

  11. Ruth Nixon says:

    I do two lists or I guess really three. #1 books I’ve read,keeping a yearly one by the month #2 . books I want to read so when my TBR pile is low I can add some more #3 my Deb Canham bears, a collection I started 17 yrs. ago and bits and pieces about each bear and about ones I searching for.

  12. Jeanette Whiteck says:

    I couldn’t live without making lists. I keep track of everything — what I need to do, what books I have found from on-line news letters (Maine Crime Writers has been wonderful for finding new authors). I love your books. Thanks for the opportunity.

  13. John Clark says:

    Lists work, but I dislike making them because A-I tend to lose them in the mountain of paper on my desk and dresser, and B-they stare at me accusingly on days when raising my eyebrows stands out as an accomplishment.

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