Using a Journal to Track Details in My Novel

When I write a book, as I'm sure many other Authors will agree to, it can be difficult remembering every little detail. So I like to keep a journal right next to me at all times when writing.

For instance, the hat on page ten might have started out as purple but by the time I get to page 192, when I’m supposed to find the hat as a clue to who the murderer is, I mistakenly refer to it as red.


Happens to the best of us, right?

Sure, but those kinds of mistakes, if missed during editing, will take a reader out of the story. They bring the reader out of the fictional world and back to reality.

And for fiction Authors that means death.

That’s why so many Authors develop a system of tracking their details. Because stuff like that can't happen after the first draft. There are software programs, some of which are designed specifically to help track work. Even an Excel spreadsheet can get the job done.

I find it cumbersome to record digitally because then I have to go fishing for a file every time I question a detail. Writing them by hand helps me absorb details and I like having quick access right beside me as I type.

That’s what I call my novel journal.

This device is exactly what it sounds like – I open a notebook when I start a new book, grab a pen and start writing down every detail of everything I know is going to come into play.

Here's how I break it down.

First page of the novel journal

The first is always the character page. It is divided into three columns – Character name, character description, and their status as of the end of the book.

For example, if I’m writing about the female cop that shows up at Shaw McLeary’s door in Reckless Abandon, I need to decide what happens to her in the end. She's not a major character, however, her character comes into play again much later in the book (for reasons I won't reveal due to spoilers).

So after 30,000 words I don’t want to have to scroll back to remind myself about her character.

In the novel journal the cop is labeled as a tertiary character, a small bit player. But I also make note of whether she lives or dies - a very important plot detail - as well as the color of her uniform or other important points to note about appearance.

Subsequent Pages

The next page is where I note names and other stuff about character or setting.

For example, Shaw drives a Chevy Malibu. I also write down names of towns they visit, hotels they stay in, time they get on an airplane, restaurant names and locations.

It helps to ensure the continuity of the story and especially for a book like Reckless Abandon where I plan to write it as part of a series, it can be an essential guide after writing five books in.

Next I create a story timeline.

In Shaw’s first adventure the story takes place over a couple days. And there are important things that must be addressed – do they sleep, where, what time does the story begin (even if I don’t ever mention it), time of year, etc.

Reckless Abandon is set at the end of summer but Shaw runs around Phoenix in jeans. Because she was born and raised in the southwest United States she’s used to the dry heat. But when she and JJ get to Manhattan she mentions being uncomfortable in the humidity.

She’s out of her element which helps to build her character as well as keep continuity with time and place.

The final page in my novel journal is a long timeline.

This timeline is for any and every character that's got a rich backstory. The cop wouldn't make it onto this timeline but Shaw, JJ, the bad guys, and Danny are all detailed on this page.

But it's only the big events that I track here - births, deaths, marriages, divorces, moves, meet-cutes, etc. Because math isn't always my strong suit and there’s nothing worse than saying a character is 44 in 2012, but trying to convince the reader they graduated high school at age 18 in 1992! 

The Extras

I always like to leave a few blank pages to jot down random ideas or other plot devices that don’t fit in the main category pages above. Sometimes it'll be a few lines of dialogue that pushes the story.

You'll find stuff like sketches of floor plans, rough maps where the characters are traveling or other graphically helpful bits.

Anything that can help me get into the mindset of the characters and visualize the story in better detail will end up noted in the pages of my novel journal.

Image courtesy of Artdesigner.Iv

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