In any artistic endeavour it is important to create an illusion. In books, film and television a story transports the reader or the viewer into a different world. In music a wrong note can completely destroy the mood. To help sustain the illusion, writing a book requires a great deal of research to make every detail as authentic as possible. Research was covered at more length in the CRA Writers Tips dealing with that topic. Its importance cannot be overestimated.
But there is more to this than just researching information. In addition to research into real circumstances, there is another kind of continuity that is also vital if a book is to be convincing. All the details within the world of the book itself have to be consistent. Details of characters can’t be contradictory. To give an obvious example, an orphan can’t visit his or her mother. Physical characteristics, tastes and habits, ambitions and anxieties, everything about a character must be consistent.
Writing a series makes this kind of continuity even more important – and far more difficult. Without detailed records, it becomes impossible. Keep a record, whether physical or electronic, of dates, locations, characters and relationships. In a stand alone book you may be able to manage unaided. In a series, it’s far too risky to rely on your memory. Not only do you need to make notes, but you have to be able to access your records when you need them. You never know when you might need to check some small detail. Electronic storage is probably the best, as you can search for names or key words. Some authors display charts, or use exercise books. Experiment with different systems and use whatever works for you.
No detail is insignificant, however trivial it might seem. A reader somewhere will notice slips, and if an error is spotted by a reviewer, that can colour their impression of the entire book. A friend of mine described a train journey one of her characters took. Because the journey was a familiar one, she didn’t bother to check it and by mistake transposed two of the stations on the route. A reviewer in the Guardian liked her book, but criticised her heavily for failing to research the details. As a result the review was less than complimentary.
If, like me, you have every minutiae of your work in progress in your mind, but might forget details of earlier books in your series, thorough record keeping is essential. And if, like me, you find yourself writing a spin off series as well as a first series, consistency becomes doubly complicated. Fortunately my editor has a good memory, and is quick to pick up any inconsistencies. Don’t rely on yourself to remember everything.
Make notes, keep records, and find a trustworthy reader with a good memory to help you create consistency in your characters and locations.
This article was first published on the CWA website