By Christie Valentine Powell
One afternoon my college roommate, an accounting major, found me pouring over an excel sheet. “You use excel?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes,” I answered. “It’s useful for writing.”
My roommate still couldn’t believe that a girl with a perchance for fiction would be using the same program she used in her classes—especially if she didn’t have to! In fact, I used excel as early as middle school for keeping track of my characters (and their Pokémon—this was 2000).
Excel is only one tool that writers can use in crafting a story. Using files in addition to your regular word processing files can help a writer keep track of character details; turn the story’s setting into a living, breathing world; and the mundane realities of writing and publishing.
Have you ever read a series where one of the characters switches middle names between books? What about eyes that change color? Or a horse that changes gender? A character sheet can be a great way to keep all those little details straight, especially for minor characters.
“How do you name your characters?” comes up frequently in writing circles. Many writers have an interest in names outside of fiction, and enjoy online lists and name dictionaries. When I come upon a name that fits my story, I add it to my name excel sheet. The columns go across the top and then I fill in the information about each name. I include a column for “bearer” so I know if I’ve already used the name. I can sort the names to help me narrow down the perfect name for my character. For instance, if a new male Sprite character appears, I can scroll down the alphabet to ‘S’…
and I have a whole list of possibilities.
Drawing a family tree can generate new ideas and help you get to know your character better. This is a must if your story includes many family members or complicated backstory. I use a Paint program (free with most computers) to move names and dates around. This is also especially useful in conjunction with a timeline.
A timeline is especially useful in fantasy novels or any story that takes place over many years. I have a quick reference for births, deaths and marriages; important events in both kingdoms and characters’ lives; and the reigns of kings. I can easily calculate how old any one character is during a certain event. This also assures that my world is populated by a realistic number of ages: children and the elderly are often overlooked in fantasy stories, but my timeline can help me discern which characters of all ages might be present.
My ‘master map’ is essential for a high fantasy world, but maps can be useful in many genres to help calculate travel times, keep track of multiple groups of characters, include different landscapes, and even visualize which direction the characters are facing. When I publish a book, I take the relevant section of my master map and turn it into an insert for the front of the book.
Another tool for keeping track of characters on a journey is the calendar. It helps you keep track of how long your characters might have traveled and how much time has passed between significant events. For my calendar, I use a template from word perfect, but you can find them for excel, download a program for the purpose, or even keep a physical copy.
Short-story writer Melissa Mead discovered: “I’ve been really stuck on the [work in progress], trying to keep track of what’s happening to who where, when, and why. I even tried outlining, and I’m a major pantser. Then I realized: I don’t need an outline to get a grip on this book. I need a CALENDAR. Never mind what chapter or scene this is, or whose point of view I’m in. Just tell me who’s doing what, where, and when. Even if there’s half a chapter happening on one day and 4 chapters on the next…This way I can even write in what the villain’s doing behind the scenes, even though it’s not in the book.”
Calendars can keep multiple viewpoints straight. And don’t forget the weather! Once, I had just described the vibrant green of a temperate rain forest… only to realize that this was autumn. The leaves would be vibrant, but not green!
My “Chapter Sheet” is a tool I use to help with pacing, though it may be too OCD for some. I keep track of the name and number of each chapter, and then copy down the page numbers from my table of contents. This calculates the length of each chapter so I can determine if parts are too long or short. I color code chapters based on the characters present and the plot points involved. This also helps me compare between books in a series.
I’ve also used excel to keep track of agents and reviewers that I’ve contacted about my books. For reviewers, I listed their name, website, when I submitted to them, and what response I received. I did the same thing for agents before I decided to Indie publish, which also included hints I’d dug up about the sort of books they were looking for.
Where is money going and where is it coming from? At the end of the year I move the total costs, total profits, and year total to another table so that I can compare years and look for patterns… and do taxes (shudder). This is the sheet that my accounting roommate would approve of!
Much more of your story exists than appears on paper. Take advantage of all your resources! Using files in addition to your word processing can help you keep track of all the additional information and create a story that exists beyond the page.
Christie Valentine Powell lives near the sunniest city in the world with her husband, children, and lots of farm critters. Her first book, The Spectra Unearthed, was published in 2015. She also enjoys hobby farming, making toys, and daydreaming.
Keita thought being a princess nothing but trouble even before the power-hungry Stygians took over the Spectra kingdoms. Standing up to the Stygians means confronting Jasper Smelt, a former friend who insists he wants to keep her safe. His pitch-black dungeon and fiery threats suggest otherwise. With help from her friends, Keita escapes, but there is no safe place for former princesses. Banding together despite their different cultures, the girls find themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Stygians and a small rebel group. Keita wants to help, but how can she face Jasper, someone with abilities she couldn’t begin to fight, someone constantly seeking her out, someone who fears everything…except her?