Tracking Trivia by Using a Series Bible

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigSeries Bible

It’s trivia that trips me up in my series…seemingly trivial throwaway lines that I make in books and then promptly forget.

The more books we have in a series, the more important tracking the trivia becomes.  It’s easy to lose track of tiny details when your mind is on the big picture of your plot.

It’s the kind of detail that you use to fill a character or a setting in a little bit.  A recurring character has nice teeth.  Drives a Buick.  Is allergic to cats.  Lost his mother in his twenties.

One character’s glasses have been a disaster. The character started out looking, in my head, like Donald Rumsfield with his rimless glasses.  Those glasses at some point transformed to wire-rimmed glasses in the series.  When I noticed this, I just kept it consistent with the most recent mention of the glasses and thought to myself that if a reader noticed, I’d tell her the character had gotten a different pair.  No one has contacted me about the detail.

However, a reader wrote me on Wattpad recently to ask about my protagonist’s grandson’s age. This is that reader I’ve written about before who knows my characters very well.  In one book, this grandson has no teeth and is eating baby food.  In another, he speaks two-word sentences. So which is it?  I told the reader that I’d aged Jack but kept the other characters about the same age (because I have no plans on aging my octogenarian sleuth).  And then I got out my series bible and made some more notes.

I think it’s the readers who binge-read who catch these things the most.  The ones who just finished  book three a week ago, book four a couple of days ago, and are now reading your book five.

It’s not only the self-pubbed books, either. It’s the trad pubbed ones. The occasional very slight inaccuracy that wasn’t caught by an editor.  But the kind of thing that can yank a reader out of our story.

For the self-pubbed books, if I catch a problem, I’ll go back into the document, correct it, and then republish.  For the trad-published…I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that I’m the only one who notices. And cringe a little.

These are my personal best practices for preventing the problem:

Reread any books written before a series bible was created.  Make notes on any recurring character or setting or any continuing plotline on a master document for the series.

Divide the notes up by characters, setting, and subplot to make referencing easier.

Add notes as I go to the master document for every new book I write.  If I make any changes in the edits, change them on the master doc.

Document the source of the reference.  I abbreviate the book titles where the reference appears.  [Crazy Dan poked his grizzled head out the door, a scowl on his leathery, stubble-covered features.  “You again!”  (DS).  A wild, mangy beard and shaggy gray hair.  (PDD)]

Make any style notes, as well, to add to the document.  So it’s the Bradley Bugle newspaper, not The Bradley Bugle.

Make changes to the text of anything I’ve self-pubbed that displays inconsistencies.

Make a copy of the master document to have in the same folder as the new work-in-progress for the series. Keep a copy on the cloud, as well (for me, this is Google Drive, which I can access on my phone), in case I’m working on paper somewhere and need the file as reference.

Things I  track:

Setting details.  The color of a house, the name of the character’s street, the favorite hangout for the characters, what type of food their favorite restaurant serves, the character’s living room. Population of the town.

Character habits or details:  Early riser.  Kills houseplants.  Subscribes to the newspaper.  Peanut allergy.  Cries at weddings.  Scrapbooks.  Reads nonfiction only.  Likes jazz.  Attends church. Exercises daily. Eats junk food. Smokes. Drives a minivan.

Character description:  Wears glasses (and type/color of frame), never wears flats, blue eyes, gray hair, fondness for bowties, age, height.

Character beliefs:  Political leanings, spiritual beliefs, attitudes toward family or spouse.

Continuing subplots: A character’s health issue, a character’s relationship with another character, a character’s issues with his work or his family.

Another nice thing about these series bibles–it helps me see where I need to fill in a character a little more.  Am I using the same words or details to describe a character for each book?  This is one way I can spot this problem.

These little details can really get out of control over the course of a series.  Do you use a series bible?  What kinds of things do you track?

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31 thoughts on “Tracking Trivia by Using a Series Bible

  1. Great advice, Elizabeth. I write stand alone books, but I keep a story notebook for those as well. Thank goodness. Today I started back in on a ms that I hadn’t opened since the first draft over a year ago. I went through my notebook to get reacquainted!

    1. Julie–You make a good point…keep track of these details even for a standalone. After all, maybe you’ll want to expand it to series length later. Or maybe you’ll be speaking to a book club and won’t remember all the details. Or maybe it will function as a good way to refresh yourself with the story details.

  2. Such great advice! After tripping up one too many times, I’ve finally started doing something similar. I use an app called Index card and do a card for each character. You can do different colored index cards and I do a different colored one for setting, sub-plots etc. It’s sort of like an online cork board, which you can set up for each book project. I believe it’s very similar to the index system in Scrivener.

  3. Wow, that’s a lot to keep track of. I can see messing up a small detail from one book to the next. I’m glad my main character was pretty much the only constant in my series – and that I had twenty years between each book. Although I’m sure I missed something. Because no, I’ve never gone back and read any of my books after publication. I think it would scare me…

  4. I have a spreadsheet for my series, but it’s far from complete. I have character names, ages, basic things about looks and other notes (in some cases). I also keep track of special terminology, and honorifics used with various ranks of people. I’m starting to note customs surrounding festivals in more detail, too, but I don’t keep much in the way of setting notes, just a map or two (I write fantasy at the moment, so those had to be made up).

  5. Elizabeth – A series bible is such a great idea. I often find myself going back through what I’ve written when I need to check on, say, whether a character is blonde or brunette, or what kind of car someone drives. This kind of data set looks like the perfect way to keep everything in one place. It looks easy to set up, too. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I had something similar for my series. I also had a spreadsheet with all of the main characters, broken down into months and years, starting with before the first book began. I wanted to keep straight what each character was doing when, even if they weren’t in the storyline.

  7. Thanks for the tip, Elizabeth! I have scattered word documents on my computer that I forget to keep updated and have trouble finding, LOL. Not a great system. Now that I’m writing my 4th book in the series, I really need to be organized! I started using Scrivener last year, so that’s probably a good place to start a new project with all of these kind of details.

    Now, if I can only find the time…

    ~Kathy

    1. Kathy–Congratulations that you’re on book 4! That’s when I really started getting messed up with my details, so you’re doing the right thing to organize it!

      It didn’t take as much time as I thought…less when I used my timer and didn’t get distracted by my early writing. :)

  8. Great tip, Elizabeth! I usually find a helpful tool like this AFTER I’ve completed a project. To date, I’ve written standalones and one trilogy but just started what I envision as a series. I’m a notorious pantser and rely mostly on my memory or I reread, which is tedious and bound to fail me one of these days. Now I can keep track of details at the onset which is well…just smart. Thanks!

  9. So many great ideas! I use mindmaps for primary characters (each one gets their own), secondary characters (all on one), and locations for my settings (all on one). I then keep a timeline for major events. Nothing worse than having someone pregnant for 12 months! This combination of tools has kept me out of trouble (for the most part) for my Flynn’s Crossing series, with book eight coming out in March. I’m happy to pick up tips from everyone else too!

  10. Scrivener is great for tracking details like this. I’ve started a series bible for my current series. I’m still tweaking it to find the format I like (separate documents for each character, political system, history, weapons, tech, etc.) but it’s so much better than my old way of trying to use Word, or not creating a bible at all.

  11. Oh yes. The Trivia Bible. Mine is not yet complete, but I’m adding to it gradually. Scrivener does help with this. There’s another thing to add to this reference list, as well: a map of the town your series takes place in. Since my series takes place in a walkable downtown area, its important to remember how many blocks away various places are from the sleuth’s apartment/headquarters: the coffee shop, the resale shop, the different restaurants, friends’ apartments and houses, etc. There’s also the names of the main drags, neighboring towns, etc. And which direction does the sleuth’s house/apartment face? The office window? The sun can’t shine into it any old time of day!

    Since I write character-driven plots, I have to list my characters in order of year of birth (and sometimes include the year of their death) to make certain that they were the right age at the right time to have experienced a certain decade in a certain way, or to have been old enough to get married, etc. Sometimes a slight discrepancy has triggered a more creative twist ;)

    1. Meg–Great point! A map of the town is very helpful. I can’t draw, so I’ve done a very basic description of the areas for my bible. It tells me that Myrtle’s house is diagonal from her son’s, that her next door neighbor is Erma and the next neighbor from there is Miles. I also track what’s in walking distance for her, since she walks everywhere. Very good point about the sunlight–I hadn’t thought of that!

      I’ve worried a bit over Myrtle’s birthday since I’m not aging her and since my series has been ongoing for years now (with no end in sight). I’ve been a bit vague about what she experienced growing up (music, wars, etc.).

  12. Hi Elizabeth – what great notes and additions from your commenters. Something that would be useful for remembering where useful references are .. etc … ie bloggers and some tiny history .. etc etc .. Lots to do and lots to think about …

    Great idea .. thanks so much .. cheers and here’s a happy and successful 2015 – Hilary

  13. Great idea! I’ve done something like that for ages. It started as a family tree, since most of the characters are family, and those that weren’t were noted as who they were in relation to. Then, it got bigger, with points of interest to remind me of who’s who and what’s what. I even went back to my first novel and reread, noted names and characteristics written, where they lived, and so on. It became so confusing, I began to color-code my characters. I’m going on over six-hundred characters, ‘real’ places and ‘fantasy’ places. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from you and try some of your techniques?

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