Novellablog: On Remembering; or, The Care and Feeding of People and Places You’ve Invented

I replied to an email from a reader about a week ago and for one reason or another, in that email I included a list of the notebooks that were in my work bag at that precise time. There were eleven in the bag that day. Here’s the list:

  • 1 for lists and general notes (write blog post today, buy paper towels, pick up laundry, that kind of thing)
  • 3 notebooks with notes for a new project called Border Saints (1 for general ideas and 1 for notes from a certain book I’m using for research and 1 that’s redundant but fits in a pocket)
  • 5 notebooks for Bluecrowne, the next short novel, which I just finished and am revising (1 has notes on every year between 1764 and 1817, 1 has notes on the crews of two different ships, 1 has historical notes and ideas and 2 have general revision notes)
  • 1 notebook I use to track how many new words I’ve written every day
  • 1 blank notebook, in case I get an idea for a brand new project or something

Now, admittedly, eleven notebooks is a little excessive even for me. And to be fair, all of the Bluecrowne-related notebooks are also Left-Handed Fate notebooks (although those aren’t even the complete set of Left-Handed Fate notebooks). And about half of what’s listed there are Field Notes books, so they’re little (thank god for my Field Notes subscription).

But on any given day, I am likely to be carrying at least one notebook for anything I’m actively or even kinda-sorta working on, which always equals at least three projects. Today, for instance, when I went to my branch office (aka my local diner) to work for a few Griffin-free hours, I had three projects represented in my bag: Greenglass House, since I’m working on the first pass; The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book, which is a book of folklore referenced in Greenglass House; and Border Saints, the new thing, which I was be allowed to mess with only while taking a break to order and eat a sandwich.

And yet, all those notebooks, all the notes I make and research I do and keep–I am discovering that none of it keeps me from having to re-do a certain amount of work each time I start working on a new project. Because I can’t keep everything in my head, and because up until now, every project among the seven manuscripts I’ve finished and the eight I consider to be on my active-but-unfinished roster is related to the rest–with the exception of only two. (Those two, in case you’re curious, are Border Saints and a thing called Greensward.) So almost every time, I wind up revisiting something from a previous book.

Now, they’re not all directly related. Not all have to do with Natalie, Sam, Jin, and Jack Hellcoal. But they are all set in a world I have begun to call in my own mind the Walking World, a place peopled with uncanny itinerants called roamers, who include everyone from the denizens of traveling medicine shows to those who’ve faced the Devil in competition to the strange beings called Jumpers to those, like The Broken Lands‘ Sam Noctiluca, who have what the card sharp Al Tesserian refers to as dust on the soles of their shoes.

When you get to know a world through and through, it’s hard not to want to return to it. When you fall in love with your characters–and when they’re characters with long histories–it’s hard not to want to tell as many of their adventures as you possibly can. But that means always being able to bring them back to life as fully as you did the first time. And it means making sure what you’re resurrecting is the same character as before, adjusted for differences in age and circumstance. A lot of this is voice, but it’s way more than voice alone. And I don’t know about anybody else, but I find this very difficult. The first time I had to do this was when Tom Guyot strolled into the Reverend Dram in The Broken Lands. Since then, I’ve had to do it with Natalie (and everybody else in Arcane, including Tom again), Jack, Liao, Liao’s sister Lucy, Liao again, Lucy again…I don’t know, maybe it’s me. I love doing it, but it’s never easy.

There’s also the matter of more simple, everyday consistency between the books. In which leg was Tom Guyot wounded? In which battle did that happen? Does Doc Fitzwater’s cane have an alligator head or a crocodile head? Who’s the purser of The Left-Handed Fate? As I’m typing this, I found an example of what I’m talking about, and I only found it because I just checked to be sure I was quoting Tesserian correctly when I mentioned dust on the soles of one’s shoes. In The Broken Lands, when the term “roamer” is used by Tesserian, it isn’t capitalized. I’m pretty sure we capitalized it in Greenglass House. I will now have to make a note to go back through and check that. 

Then there’s the matter of the stuff I learned for whatever reason and suddenly have to re-learn again. I don’t have the bandwidth to retain for four years everything I learned about waidan and fireworks when I was writing The Broken Lands, but I needed it for Bluecrowne. (This is why I hoard books, I tell myself. At least I know when I suddenly need them years after the project I initially got them for, I’ll still have them.)

So I keep these notebooks. I keep notebooks for every project, and sometimes even for specific ideas if I think I need to devote more space to them than just a few pages in a notebook dedicated to something else. I should really have done that for my notes on the waidan of Liao and Jin, for instance. Live and learn. But even more than that, I’ve started to keep a universal set of notes. It’s not world-building stuff or history. It’s mostly the details: what kind of head tops Doc’s cane; in which leg Tom took a bullet; when I think Jake Limberleg was born, in order to calculate his likely age in 1821. (Yes, Limberleg fans. I know you’re out there. More to come.)

Still, half the time I don’t know what I need to know until I’m knee-deep in a New Thing, so heck if I know if trying to anticipate the kinds of questions that New Thing will require me to remember the answers to will actually help at all. And it certainly won’t help with replicating a character’s voice, or any of the extrapolation that goes into figuring out how Tom Guyot of 1877 is subtly different from Tom Guyot of 1913. But I’ll give it a try. It’s gotta be good for something.

Plus, you know, that’s one more notebook I get to maintain, and I like me a good notebook.



  1. It’s very inspiring how you can work on multiple projects at once. I’m curious what kind of notebooks you use – are they all the same, with different labels? Are they all different? I’m always misplacing my notebooks, and forgetting which one is for which project. Also how much world-building do you do before you start actually writing the story?

  2. Hi, John! They’re mostly different. I use whatever notebook catches my attention or seems appropriate (or whatever notebook I fall in love with and decide I must own, which happens more often than I’m proud of). I keep any I’m not actively working on in a pair of magazine files on my desk, but I won’t lie, I often misplace them (though at least I usually know they’re going to be in my office). I lost a notebook I was using for revisions for my 2015 book for almost a year, because I had used one to mark my place in a research book I was using at the time.

    I was going to say that I don’t usually do world-building beforehand, except that ever since The Boneshaker I’ve come into most of these stories with at least some of the world already having been constructed thanks to previous books. So I guess my gut answer isn’t true and I do do work ahead of time. But generally I don’t go out of my way to plan. I like to build as I go. The exception to that is Greenglass House and Bluecrowne, which are set specifically in the city of Nagspeake, which I’ve been visiting for seven or eight years now without my ever actually planning to write anything set there. So when I finally did decide to use it as a setting, I did already know it very well.

    The book I’m working on now, Border Saints, is a whole new place, unrelated to the Walking World or Nagspeake. I didn’t do any advance world building or planning, but as I’ve been writing, I’ve also been researching, and it’s sort of like the place is coming together around the story and affecting it at the same time. So the world-building and planning is happening as I go, which is the way I think I like it best. The bottom line is, I can’t resist the temptation to start, when I want to start something new. I like to just leap in and explore and see what happens and where the story goes.

    Advance planning and prep is so different for everyone, isn’t it? Do you find you like to build in advance, or do you just throw yourself in there?

  3. I usually get an idea for a story and start writing it, but then realize I should really know more about, say, Medieval England, and I leave the story to do research. Then I’m never sure how much I need to do, since you could research anything until the end of time. And being a slow reader and a slow writer, it certainly doesn’t help the pace of my productivity.

    Sometimes the research gives me ideas, and other times it seems to overwhelm and crowd out my story, so I lose sight of the original thread that got me excited in the first place. It’s a tricky balance.

  4. I know exactly what you mean! One of the problems I have with researching too much in advance of getting the writing underway is that I always feel like I don’t know what I need to know until I get going. ‘Cause “Medieval England” covers a lot of ground, a lot of time, a lot of events/personalities/lore/etc. Just as you say, the research can either help direct the story, or it can turn into a swamp, or it can just turn into procrastination. It’s really hard to know when it’s turned the corner from helpful into not helpful. Sometimes all I can figure to do is to keep adding words, even if I’m not sure about them, and trust that as long as I’m moving forward I’m making progress. And trust that editing can work magic in the end. 🙂 I put a lot of faith into the just-keep-writing idea. I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed and think you have to figure everything out before you move on. But if I get really stuck, that’s when I almost always stop and go back to research in search of the magic key to whatever’s blocking me.

  5. Yes, it’s good to keep writing and not let the research interfere with the story. Thanks for all the great ideas!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *