Managing Your Book Series

Melissa Bowersock Ghost Walk series 7books-tieredAre you writing a series? Many authors are, it seems. Some of us have discovered how satisfying it can be to extend one story into many, to watch our characters grow and develop. It’s actually something I never thought I would do, but now that I’m knee-deep in it, I love it.

Coming from a position of doing only stand-alone books for the first 40 years of my writing career, however, I’ve run into an issue. I tend to do what I call “writing in the headlights.” What I mean is that I usually concentrate very narrowly on the chapter or scene in front of me, the one that I’m working on, and I seldom look back unless I realize there’s a plot hole that I need to fill. Once I finish a scene, I move on to the next, again, pretty much blanking my mind of what went on before.

This came up as an issue when I contracted with a narrator to do the audiobooks of my series. While she was recording Book 1, Ghost Walk, I was writing Book 17. When she’d uploaded all the chapters of Ghost Walk, I printed out the entire manuscript so I could follow along as I listened to check the wording and make notes. (I’ve found that even the best narrators sometimes say a wrong word or skip a line.) What I realized was that I’d forgotten a LOT of what I’d first written — about the characters, what they did, how they felt and thought. This in and of itself is not a problem; people evolve, they grow and change. To my mind, keeping the characters static through all the adventures mine have been through would be unrealistic. Real people change, and my characters do, too.

The real challenge for me was remembering where they came from. I’d forgotten some of their signature opinions, their mannerisms, so re-reading the first book was an excellent reminder for me. But it also pointed out to me that I needed a good system to keep track of all my characters.

I think we’re all familiar with story bibles, the notes we make of character names, descriptions, and plot points. Well, with a series that was approaching 20 books, I knew I needed a story bible on steroids. I set up an Excel spreadsheet with names (first and last), roles in the book, book titles and numbers where they appear first, ages, and descriptions. I put the first and last names in separate cells so I could sort on either; I found I sometimes couldn’t remember if I’d used a name or not, so this was a quick way to find out. And now, as I write each new book, I add the names as I go. I’ve got a monster list going. I don’t have all the names in yet, but I’m sure I’m going to have over 400 when I get them all entered. Way too many to try to keep track in my head.Melissa Bowersock series tracker spreadsheet

Above is a sample of my spreadsheet. Sometimes, as you’ll see there, I do inadvertently re-use a name. I don’t worry too much about this; after all, how many Jims do you know? How many Carols? In the case above, the first Alec is a very minor character, only appearing in one scene, while the second Alec is a major character. They’re very different people and appear in different books, so I’m okay with that.

However, I’ve also found that I gravitate toward certain names, either first or last. I’ll come up with a name I like for a new major character, check my spreadsheet and… yeah, already used it. There’s that “writing in the headlights” thing again; I often don’t remember what names I’ve used. My spreadsheet keeps me from overusing my favorite names.

The spreadsheet has also come in handy when I re-introduce a character who appeared, oh, maybe ten books ago. There have been a few characters that I like enough to re-use, or a story just lends itself to that character’s field of expertise, but then I often have to dig back through the book where they originally appeared to remember what the heck they looked like. My character spreadsheet — if I had filled it out well to begin with — helps me with that. If not, it tells me where to find the character so I can look up him/her and pull their description from the original book.

My uses for the spreadsheet — and needs — seem to keep growing as I write more books. I’ve finished Book #25 now and am still adding little bits of info to the list. It definitely comes in handy, or at times points out a hole I need to plug. Either way, it saves me tons of time instead of poring back over an older book to find the detail I need.

What about you? What tools and tricks do you use to keep track of your series elements?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

10 thoughts on “Managing Your Book Series”

  1. I created a series bible for my Howard County Mysteries. I’m nowhere as far along as you are (I’m working on the fourth book), but I find it does help to keep things straight. I made a few big errors between books 1 and 2, although probably nobody will figure out what they are just by reading. 😉 I created a character sheet template in Word and fill it out for each new character of significance. I also put a timeline at the end of the bible to summarize key events in the lives of the main characters both before and during the series. It’s not as compact as a spreadsheet, but it allows me to fill in a lot of detail if I want, in which case it’s easier to read.

  2. You may not be as far along as books are concerned, but you are way ahead of me on the series bible; I’m still playing catch-up as I go. I think a timeline is an EXCELLENT idea, and I just might do that. Over the now 25 books, there have been many twists and turns to the relationships of the characters, not to mention back-story issues that come up now and again. You’ve given me plenty to think about, Dale, so thanks. (I think.)

  3. I always have a list of characters and place names, with a brief note on who they are, and I just add a new page for the new names for each book in the series. Because I’m writing Fantasy and making up the names, I don’t have duplication problems. Of course, my longest series is 7 books. If I wrote 17, I think I’d have to be a little more organized!

    1. What caught me short, I think, is that I never planned to write 10 or 20 or more books. I thought I was done at four, but the characters kept insisting on more. At this point, I’m no longer making any claims about how many books there might be!

  4. Oh I definitely need to do this, thank you for the tip. How many times I’ve repeated names or forgotten if someone has blue eyes or takes sugar in their coffee. My surnames tend to all begin with H – no idea why but it can create issues, so I have to go back and change them. Names for me are the biggest problem! Years ago all my male protagonists were called John in the first draft. And then there was the kerfuffle over my (I thought) brilliant choice of the name Ben Sherman for a chap before my daughter pointed out it was the name of a designer. No wonder the two names sounded so right together.

  5. Sounds like you and I think alike! I definitely have some favorite names I have to talk myself out of using over and over. And I’ve learned — I think — that if a name sounds too good (first and last together), I’d better google it because it’s probably a name I’ve heard before! Glad it was helpful.

  6. Wish I’d thought of this. I recently re-read all of the nine books in my series and took notes for the tenth and final episode. I’d forgotten things like eye colors, that one character liked to dance and another liked to cook, etc. Mostly my important characters have returned every book so that wasn’t as much of a problem.

  7. A really thoughtful post!
    I have a spreadsheet, or series of them, with all the necessary data, but most importantly the timeline for each book, which then gets absorbed into the overall timeline. This is particularly important as a couple of the characters are involved with time travel.
    A couple of years ago I reread the whole series to enable me to make a plan of developments during and between the last three books, but by then I knew where the series ended. It’s been hard keeping within that, and sometimes I have to check back on the books themselves, but I keep copies by my side when I’m writing for just that purpose. And sometimes I’m looking at a prewritten scene from someone else’s perspective, and I need to get the dialogue more or less the same. More or less? Yes, characters would have different reports of the same scene!
    With the audiobooks, I’m reading through them and making minor edits before I send it to the narrator. I then follow that word by word as I listen to the narrator’s draft. The benefit of being an indie-author is that I can issue a new edition to match the final audio version. Sometimes what the narrator says is what it should be! I also found with the first two books, that it was a good way of neatening up my paragraphs.
    I have two Mikes, who are clearly different characters in different eras. I have several Harrys, most of whom have a Young Harry, Harry Junior, or similar appendage. But most of the names are unique.
    Nice to read your thoughts on the subject – 27? Wow. I decided to call it to a halt at 10.

    Jemima Pett, The Princelings of the East

    1. Well, Jemima, you’ve certainly found out all the best reasons for keeping track of your series! There are a lot of them. Yes, I’ve often had to go back and find dialog that’s repeated so I can get it verbatim, but luckily my series does not involve time travel, so at least I don’t have to keep track of that. I remember reading one book by Marlys Millhiser where she has two times intersecting, but they don’t intersect chronologically, so what might be the first contact for one side is the third for the other. I’ll bet that was a job to keep track of! And I’ve also found that doing the audio books is an excellent double-check for mistakes, and I’ve changed a few little things in the paperbacks and ebooks to match. So many different projects to track! It’s work, but it’s a lot of fun, too.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: