Faces and Places

Here’s a simple tip for writing long-form fiction that will pay off repeatedly when you’re editing your book, and especially if you’re writing a series. After you’ve planned the story out and you’re about to begin the writing phase (or any time thereafter — it’s never too late), create a reference sheet for each character and also for each significant location.

These character and location sheets, which I’ve always called Faces and Places, are your bible for the book. Whenever you need to know something about a character, for example, you go to your Face Sheet for that person. You’ll either find the information there, or you will make it up and put it there ready for next time. Do this without exceptions, for even the smallest details.

Here are some important things to include:

If your character gets injured in a scene, for example, note the type and position of the injury in their Face Sheet — you’ll almost certainly refer to it later! If you learn something new about a place, add it to the relevant Place Sheet. Make it a habit, and don’t dismiss anything at all. Every chapter you write will provide additions to your Faces and Places.

The situation you want to avoid is having to read or search through the full text of your story to confirm a detail about a person or a location, and this will become even more important if you’re writing a series. Start with your Faces and Places immediately, and treat them as the one canonical source of truth for every person and location you write about. I promise you that they’ll be invaluable, especially when you’ve just finished the first draft of a book and you need to go back through and edit it. You don’t want any roadblocks to an efficient edit because editing requires stamina, and you certainly don’t want to rely on your unreliable memory of minor details that you might have written months or years ago.

Even if you’re a “pantser”, and thus don’t outline your plots beforehand, you can create your Faces and Places as you go, the first time you need them — then keep them updated thereafter. The difference between quickly looking up a reference sheet for a detail, or trying to formulate a plain-text search through a hundred-thousand-word manuscript to determine what you said about something or even if you said it, is night and day. Don’t put yourself in the latter position.

A nice side-effect of Faces and Places is that they give you bonus information about your fictional universe for free, ready for use in promotional articles, in Kindle X-Ray metadata, behind-the-scenes extra content, and so on. But the main benefit is that your writing and editing process will be much easier than it would be without them.

No setting or character is too incidental, and no detail is too trivial. Start the habit right now, and make sure you always have an up-to-date set of Faces and Places for each book you work on.