Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 8, 2017

Avoiding Stranger Danger in Your Writing

Let’s face it, the characters you write about are often more familiar to you than your own family and friends. After all, they’re with you 24-7.

Fixing dinner for your family: “So, yeah, hey, you know I think I’m actually allergic to goat cheese which means you really need to scrub that entire amazing scene at the goat.”

3 am: “Hey, hey, did I tell you about my great-great grandmother who had this fear of bread and that’s what motivated me to become a baker? Yeah, I think that’s a thread that needs to be explored.”

Date night: “You know, this is all romantic and sweet but I think we need to discuss that last scene in chapter 32. It doesn’t work. The problem starts in chapter 4 though. So here’s what you need to do …”

You know everything about these characters, of course you do, you created them. You talk about them to friends and family and perfect strangers like they’re living, breathing people. To you, they are.

Then you finish the book. You pack those characters up and send them on their way to agents or to your editor. But even though you’re getting cozy with a new cast of characters, you’re sure, as sure as you are that coffee is a gift from the gods, that these characters will forever be in your head.

Then publishing happens.

It’s been a year (maybe more) since you submitted the manuscript. A year (probably more) of working on other books, living with other characters day in and day out. Or maybe it’s your dust bunny book that has been released from its dark cave after cough-number of years.

And suddenly you realize something terrifying … those characters you knew every single intimate detail about, the ones who never left you alone, they’ve become strangers. All of a sudden you can’t remember the name of the best friend, the color of the husband’s eyes, the last name of the favorite secondary character.

Yup, those people you knew, just KNEW would always be at the ready in your brain are off on an exotic vacation without you.

I know, I know … you guys are shaking your head thinking, “that’ll never happen to me because I have character sheets and I plot and I write details down.” Yeah, yeah.

Guess what? I do too. I have notebooks and notecards and timelines for each book. I write down all sorts of things I know I need to keep straight. And yet, here I am, revising a book that I started working on back in 2012 and there are details that are totally and completely baffling me.

At the same time, I’m working on promotional pieces for my debut that comes out in May. Other than reading page proofs last summer, I haven’t spent much time with these characters.  Imagine my horror when I sat down to write a blog post and couldn’t remember a key detail about one of the characters.

So, what’s the trick to avoiding stranger danger with characters you yourself created? Notes.

You’re laughing, right?
I know you’re laughing.

We just agreed that we all already take notes and yet, I’m still in stranger danger panic.

Okay, let me rephrase … take different notes.

More than “just the facts”

Yes, you need to remember details such as eye color, hair color, what year someone was born, etc. But it’s the small details about a person that actually make the person and will make it so much easier to remember them when the time comes.

For example …

  • What was the name of the character’s first pet? What kind of pet was it? How long did they have it? At what age? Or maybe the mc’s mom didn’t let her have a pet but she always dreamed about the dog or cat or bunny she’d get when she was an adult.
  • What’s their favorite drink? Double shot soy latte? Maybe your main character starts every morning with a banana-almond milk smoothie? Or maybe her ex did and she’s now a passionate anti-banana person.
  • How does your character like to sleep? On her back or on one side? Pillow scrunched under her neck or propped up? Heavy blanket year-round because of an irrational fear of monsters?
  • What does your character like to do when “off screen”? Read curled up on the front porch of her house? Play Sudoku on her phone? Knit blankets for shelter animals?
  • Where was your character’s favorite study stop in college? Does she ever retreat to a similar (or same) spot when she needs to get away and think?
  • How did she meet her best friend? Did they click immediately or did it take time for the friendship to develop? What don’t they see eye-to-eye on?
  • And jot down funny outtakes … wacky typos, deleted scenes, characters that got cut.

All of the above help bring the characters and story back to life and will make talking or writing about the book so much easier.

And, of course, write down every detail because your brain may think it’ll remember the hair color of the main character’s mom or how tall that best friend is but, if your brain is anything like mine, you’ll find yourself reinventing the wheel and then having to uninvent three-quarters of the way through the book.

Oh, and all the notes you’re taking … consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. For this second book, I have a notebook (I stopped taking notes in here about half way through the first draft), I have the notecards I plotted the revisions with (these made perfect sense at the time, not so much now), and I have various pieces of paper from brainstorming sessions with my critique partner and my editor.

That was my big lesson learned. For someone who loves to plan and organize, I was amazed at how unorganized I was with my thoughts/research for my stories. Book 3 has a lovely notebook with tabs and calendar pages and lots and lots of paper. It goes with me everywhere!

How do you avoid stranger panic with your characters? What tips and tricks have worked for you?

About Orly

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world, where she spent roughly sixteen (cough) years working in the space industry. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking entirely too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around two over-fed cats. She is a co-founder and past president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and a member of the Tall Poppy Writersdistance-homeShe is rep’d by Marlene Stringer, Stringer Literary Agency LLC.

Orly’s debut, The Distance Home, will be released by Forge on May 2, 2017.

You can find her on on Facebook, on Instagram, on Goodreads, or on her website, www.orlykonig.com.

31 comments on “Avoiding Stranger Danger in Your Writing”

  1. OMG, Orly, this is why a request from a book club group sends me into a panic! The thought of them asking about a detail that I've totally forgotten!

    I remember sitting in an OCCRWA meeting, hearing a multi-multi published author laugh about not remembering a hero's name. I was horrified. Didn't she love her books? Didn't she take this seriously? That's it, she must be one of those sellouts, that cranks books out, without a backward thought.

    Yeah, well, if so, I'm now a sellout.

    Thanks for making me feel better.

  2. Great post! Orly, I remember having EXACTLY that panic at my first book launch party, when the audience started asking questions and I found myself thinking, "Wait, what? The character did THAT?" Now I actually reread my books when they come out, BEFORE I start the whole bookstore-book club--online interview circuit. And, yeah, sometimes I'm disappointed. Other times, it's kind of a nice surprise.

  3. I'm listening to my narrator's "draft" of my second Mapleton Mystery book. It's as if I never read it, much less wrote it, and I wrote 3 more in the series after that one. I am terrible about keeping track, but I'm starting a new series and trying the "Character Sheets" in Scrivener (can't figure out much more than that) to see if it helps. But it's always something obscure that comes back to haunt you, be in character or setting. Thank goodness my books are digital and I can search--but I kick myself every time for not having a decent series "Bible."

  4. Isn't ironic how we can remember every single detail about a favorite book series we didn't author, but not our own worlds we create?

    Thanks for this. I'm resurrecting some WIP stories this year and can totally relate to this.

    1. Oh my god, Julie, I didn't even think about that but you're so right! There are novels I read YEARS ago and I still remember details about them. And yet I'm blanking on a book I wrote a year ago. Oy!!!!!! 🙂

    2. Honestly, I think it's because by the time you get through the critting gaunlet, and three professional edits . . . you NEVER want to read the damned thing again!

      I'm trying to block it out at that point! 😉

      1. {{cough, cough, sniff}} Coffee out my nose laughing--lord, I know that feeling at the end of a book!!!! I just want to hose it out of my head.

  5. Wonderful post and terrific advice! I spent years (lots of rewrites 🙂 ) with the characters from my first book before it finally sold. Now I'm working on book #2 while waiting for the edits on #1 and the H/h from #1 make candid appearances in #2 and I had to go back to verify details about them. I'm also plotting book #3 so I'm spending time with those characters. Sometimes I have to stop and think who is the one that...?

    1. I'm amazed sometimes that I don't call family members by the names of my characters. 🙂

  6. My characters live in different centuries so answering these questions forces me to think differently. What does my MC do off screen? In the 1860s? In western Maryland? I'll have to ask her — she's still talking to me as we work together on our latest revision. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

    1. Ahhh, Western Maryland. Lovely place.
      Ask her quickly before she stops talking. Characters are funny that way. 🙂

  7. LOL. I just went through that when I had to pause my WIP while I did a final read through on a previous book before publication. Who are these people? LOL Keeping my bible close at hand helps.

  8. I'd like to be able to say that I stayed on top of all the details of each book of my series as I wrote them, but I didn't. I would finish one book and immediately begin the next, until I started forgetting some details about the various recurring characters in the middle of writing book #4. My husband came to my rescue. He is comfortable with creating spreadsheets, and set up a series bible for me, one that works like a searchable database. It is unbelievably helpful, and, by displaying the interrelationships between the characters and the place, even inspires new story lines. Oh, and my husband didn't just set up the database--he actually filled it in, going page by page through all the books. We gained new respect for one another--he for the way I created a multiple-character world with a long history that I'd managed to keep in my head for as long as I did, and I for his willingness to break it all down into a database, let alone actually being good at it!

    1. I am completely impressed with your guy, Meg! I am a database girl myself...yet I can't imagine doing this myself. That guy gets and "A" in writing husbandry. 🙂

  9. Very nice article. I keep a running calendar of events and create bios for each character - even secondary ones. Whenever possible, I include a "photo" of who/what I'm referring to.

    1. Those are great! I do those too.
      What I found, at least for me, though, is that those "facts" weren't enough to keep the characters fresh in my mind.

  10. I was howling with laughter as I read the comments, until it struck - wait a minute that's me! Having just finished my second manuscript, I am thinking that a notebook of details is a darn good idea. I'm off to grab a notebook and start scribbling down those pesky details. Thanks for the laughter as well as the revelation!

    1. I used to shake my head at author friends who made comments about writing things down because you won't remember. Come to think of it, I used to shake my head at friends who said to write down all the milestones after my son was born. "Nah, I'll remember, of course I'll remember." Yeah ... I got nothing!

  11. That was great! Since my current WIP is half-inhabited by men from another planet, I'm still figuring out stuff about them (most of which the reader doesn't need to know...I hope..say 'backstory')
    I have (unorganized) notes in the laptop Book Folder. I also make a "character poster" for each one, with images & info. But I really, really don't like keeping records at all.
    BUT...since I'm getting old and forgetful, and remembering things about my Own Real Children (now adults), I'm sure fictional details will totally escape me at some point, too. Even if I slept with the characters for years ; )

    1. Well, sometimes after sleeping with someone for years, you actually WANT to forget certain details. 😉
      Think about all the fun "stories" you'll have for book readings and book clubs ... write those things down!!!!!!

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