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Read KM Rockwood's desperate man story, "Liquor Store Hold up" at Jack Hardway's Crime Magazine, March-April 2015 edition. It's a short story with a twist!

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Jim Jackson using his pen name Giles Elderkin has a story in the newly released History and Mystery, Oh My! anthology. Currently available in Kindle format.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Devil’s in the Details

Mystery writers pride themselves on fairness: the reader has the same clues as the characters in the story, and part of the fun of reading a mystery is figuring out who done it. The writer buries clues in the most mundane places, tries to tie us in knots with misdirection from MacGuffins and other red herrings and wows us with a final twist after we are sure we know the answer.

Great stuff, and it’s all ruined when Mr. Smith on page 46 has brown hair and on page 235 is a blond—and it isn’t a disguise or caused by a recent trip to the beauty salon. Such an error kills the author’s credibility. Because mystery readers are looking for every little clue, they, more than other genre or literary readers, will spot these kinds of mistakes.

What is a writer to do? Rely on the copy editor to catch that stuff?

I suggest writers keep track of these details using spreadsheets.

Authors often create detailed “biographies” for their major characters. Go online and you can find templates for “learning” about your character. These serve a purpose, but not what I am talking about. I’m referring to keeping track of the little things, like color of hair, or a personality quirk that is (or should be) just hers. For that I have a spreadsheet I call “Fictional Creations.”

This file contains a separate worksheet for characters, companies and geographical locations I have created. (I also keep track of books and music referenced in my writing.) Major characters may have a separate worksheet with lots more information as part of the documentation I keep for each novel, but for minor characters the entry tells me anything distinctive I’ve written about the character’s appearance (physical or behavioral). Here are the columns I use for people:

Name (I include nicknames in parenthesis)
Quicky Description (Something to remind me who the person is)
Titles (A separate column for each novel, so I can easily collect my cast of characters for a given piece with a sort; titles for short stories)
Additional Information (Descriptions used)

For Companies I have columns for:

Real/Fictional
Company Name
Location/What they do (although for fictional companies, I try to make clear from the name what their business is)
Titles – again with separate columns for novels, and a listing for short stories

I started this with my first novel and have continued chugging along, but maybe there are better ways. I’m listening for ideas…

~ Jim

2 comments:

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Jim,

I like the spreadsheet idea. I started my WIP with PAGES of information about my characters. The problem is that it's PAGES and has become difficult to keep track of. I think my next task is to move all the pertinent information into one place in a spreadsheet. Thanks.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

Julie,

Glad to help. Writing is not a zero sum game where hoarding what we learn benefits us at the expense of others. We're all in this together!