Thursday, June 30, 2011

Fun Ideas and Tips #2: Index That Novel!

This works best for writers of traditional fantasy, epic fantasy, science-fiction, and anyone writing a series.

A simple way to keep and maintain all the names, places, and even basic information or backstory is to create an index for your novel or series. It’s usually best to begin sooner rather than later in the writing process. If you wait too long it’s a pain to have to comb through your manuscript(s) to jot down the information and make sure you’ve been consistent with things like spelling or description.

Things to keep track of:
1)   Character names, titles, basic description, and background. All of this is mostly for your benefit, but for writers of larger tomes or complex series, you might be asked to include a character list as part of your submission in order to help the reader keep things straight. Put these in alphabetical order for easiest accessibility.
2)   Places. We’re world-building writers and unless your story takes place in a handful of settings or has a narrow world-view, you’ll need a list to keep track of the places you come up with. Things to include are what the place is, what is its significance in the story, and if it’s part of a larger place, eg.: village of _____, in the country of _____. Maps, charts, and such are also good to include. Having all of your place info in one spot makes it easy to find and to double-check.
3)   Your world attributes. Whether it’s a list of the deities involved, special bits of language used (and that you want to share the translation of), how your magic system works, the social/political levels involved, or the scientific info dumps you wisely left out of the narration but still want to share with inquisitive readers.

I keep these kinds of files for my stories, even the simple ones, and I can attest to how valuable a novel index is when I need to quickly check a reference or make sure something’s working right in the plot. I even go a step further and have a master name file for all the characters and places I’ve ever come up with in all my stories. I’ve made up a lot of names over the years and I want to make sure I’m not duplicating myself.

If you’re like me and have constructed more than a few simple language words or grammar rules for your story, you may want to create your own language dictionary. I put the words in alphabetical order, note how to pronounce them, any changes in spelling due to grammar, what they mean, and in my most complex case I also list the way the words evolve from one dialect to another. It’s a lot of work sometimes but the payoff has been rewarding.

When submitting your story to agents/editors, and you have complex world-building, be sure to include the maps you’ve drawn and the basic lists you’ve needed to keep things straight. If unsure what to send, take a look at what other authors have included in their books and how.

I'm sure some of you are good at keeping track of the details in your stories. If you have a method other than the one I've written about, please share in the comments.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. (Note: Sorry about the double post! I neglected to mention some stuff, so I'm shoehorning it in now...)

    Awesome post! I can imagine it'd be incredibly helpful for people who have a new language in their stories.

    I've always toyed around with the idea of a comprehensive index. I do have one for my places - a huge one for my dystopia, in particular. The origins of the political/social structure, lots and lots of founding/historically-important characters who never even poke their way into the novel, and neighboring governmental systems. I need serious organization when it comes to place and setting.

    For characters, I have a notepad document that just has a list of introductions and where I can find them. So it'd say, for instance, "Peter Scott - pg. 25." Peter's intro would probably contain most of what I need, and re-reading that section helps me get into the right mindset. Physically, if I specify anything further, later on in the narrative, I make little notes by the original 'pg. 25' note, like, 'Peter has a sharp jaw' or 'Peter's ears turn red when he's angry' or 'Peter has a habit of picking his nose at bad times' or whatever it may be.

    I'm very strange about the character thing. For a past novel, I copy-pasted bits of descriptions, etc. directly into my notepad document, so it was closer to a comprehensive index. But I found that I was averse to using it. Maybe I felt guilty about needing a dictionary in the first place...? That would be silly, but whatever the reason, I live inside my single word document as much as possible when it comes to the people. Worldbuilding (technology, especially) is a totally different story.