The Writer’s Lament: Where Did I Put That?

This month we’re exploring events from our pasts that have influenced us as writers. I have an anecdote or two, but I think I will save those for later in the month. Instead, I’d like to mention a quality that has affected me, not only as a teacher, but also as a writer.

Before writing novels, I taught high school English in a small town in Illinois. For many of those thirty-four years I was a single mother of three children. This meant that besides teaching English—including countless nights and early mornings of grading papers—I was also packing lunches, overseeing homework, driving  my children to various programs, and, of course, trips to the dentist, the eye doctor, the orthodontist, and the list goes on and on….

organizationSo why do I mention this? Because throughout this period of my life, I found only one quality that kept me from running away from home: I was amazingly well organized. This may seem like a small thing, but I assure you it isn’t.

This quality also helped me do a good job while I was teaching. Reality was something I couldn’t control. There would always be unexpected car repairs, sick children, appliances breaking down, and bills to pay. Organization and structure was important to me when I taught school and dealt with uncontrollable forces outside of the classroom. It certainly helped many of my students, some of whom were coming from homes with little in the way of certainty.

Flash forward to 2006. I began writing a memoir about my teaching life. It took me four years to write and publish because I was floundering around in a new world and trying to find that structure that would work for me. I published The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks) and it did quite well. You can see it here. However, I think it would have happened sooner if I’d found a good way to organize.

So when I switched to fiction I realized I’d have to find a better way to keep things straight. My first mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, taught me to keep a loose-leaf notebook with the names of characters (main and minor), places, and events that were important. Each main character had a backstory in my notebook. I also kept a timeline of the birthdays and major events of each main character. Finally, I included a chapter-by-chapter list of events so I could find items in that book. It will come out this November, and much of the notebooksinformation I collected in my loose-leaf will not actually be in the book. But I have it available when I ask myself questions like: What was the name of that retired fire marshal that Grace talked to in Book One? Inconsistencies cause readers to email authors.

A major organizational disaster occurred while researching for Book Two, Marry in Haste. I began a new loose-leaf, combining information from the first and second books, and it has worked out well. But I didn’t anticipate how disorganized my research could become very quickly. I love research. I researched many hours for the Cliffs Notes I wrote about novels. So I figured I’d be fine doing research for Book Two. I have been digging into the Chicago World's Fair1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, women’s lives in the late 1800s, Victorian house renovation, and the history of my town and the town in which I grew up.

I was foolish.

I used separate notebooks for each area of research and then I couldn’t find anything. Now I have started collecting the research and putting it in my loose-leaf notebook—along with the items mentioned above—and I can find anything easily. Back to being organized. I can see why authors who write a series of books can become confused about when they wrote what. But with my newfound organization, I think I may have solved that problem. Thoughtful organization has helped me in multiple arenas.

8 thoughts on “The Writer’s Lament: Where Did I Put That?

  1. Thanks for sharing your tips and lessons learned about data created and gathered for a novel and series. At work, organization saves my sanity and career. At home I find I only organize some things and let others go into piles. I will add these steps to my writing process so I won’t lose my data.

  2. Hi, Susan —
    Terrific article. Thanks for the tips. Building that notebook is essential. I discovered that when I had my character moving to Phoenix on one chapter and Tucson in another. Now if I can just find all my notes, I’ll start building that notebook!
    Good luck with your series.
    Grace Topping

  3. Thanks, Grace. By the way, my protagonist’s name is Grace. What a beautiful word that is! Glad I could help and hope you can find all those notes!

  4. Ah, yes. The absolutely essentail book notebook. And the series notebook. How else to remember whether the newspaper in town is the Rothsburg Register or the Rothsburg Recorder? And there’s nothing worse than having minor character Leslie be a timid, white, middle-aged male stamp collector in chapter two and a young, sassy black female stamp collector in chapter 20.

    Now if I would just always follow your advice, which I know I should be doing…

  5. Oh, please do follow my advice (-: I discovered this terrible truth about consistency just like you. I interchanged the names of the fire chief and police chief. Fortunately, a great editor caught it. So, yes. That notebook takes time, but it is so worth it to keep the screwups at a minimum. Thanks for replying!

  6. Thanks Susan for reminding me how important the minutia can be. Right now everything about the book is fresh in my mind, but by the time it gets to the Best Sellers List, I might forget. I’d hate to embarrass myself when Oprah asks me about my characters.

  7. I know what you mean, Margo. That audience of millions can throw a person off. Glad I could lay out some info on keeping your sanity and your details on a level course!

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