Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Novel writing and genealogy

What do novel writing and genealogy have in common?

One could think of several links, but now I’m thinking of using genealogy software to keep track of the characters in the novel you are writing.

For about 40 years now genealogists have been using computer software to keep track of their family history. Genealogy is quite a popular pastime, and computers are a good way of keeping track of your relatives, and there are lots of programs available for doing so.

But the same software can also be used for keeping track of the characters in a novel.

The software allows you to enter basic details of a person — dates of birth, marriage and death. Names of parents, and also siblings children and cousins.

It also allows you to enter information about a character: height, weight, colour and texture of skin, hair, eye colour and so on.

This is particularly useful if you write several novels involving the same character. Crime novels, for example, often feature detectives whose careers span 30 years or more. It’s embarrassing if you have them talking to a spouse when they were divorced three years earlier, or if their child who was a pop idol three years ago is still at school in the current novel.

You mention that your character learnt a certain skill in the British army during the Falklands War, but after a publication a reader points out that the character was only 10 years old at the time.

Your characters may be fictional, but the chronology needs to be consistent, even if your plot involves time travel.

And it’s not only writing. I’ve even used family history software to keep track of the characters in books I’ve been reading. One such book was The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch, where the characters’ relationships were difficult to keep[ track of.

So what is this genealogy software and where do you get it?

There are at least two genealogy programs for Windows that offer free versions. They are RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree. Yes, just click on the links and download and install the program. It’s that simple.

For keeping track of characters in a novel I prefer RootsMagic, as it loads in about half the time of Legacy Family Tree. Once you’ve tried them, you might also want to use these programs to keep track of your own family tree, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. If you want to know what other programs are available, see here.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed your chosen program, open the program and begin by entering details of your protagonist. Name, nicknames, date of birth, place of birth, spouses and children if any. Parents too. Even if the parents don’t feature in your novel now, they might crop up in another volume. Aunts and uncles too — your character might inherit something from them. Enter events in the life of your protagonist. In RootsMagic this is “Add a fact”. Schools they attended, jobs they held — how much detail is up to you.

Most fields allow you to enter notes. In the main person name field, you can include in a note a physical description and a potted biography in as much or as little detail as you like. In notes for the Facts/Events fields you can include, for schools attended, for example, best friend, favourite teacher, worst enemy (who may appear as the principal villain in volume 3 of your trilogy), sporting achievements and so on.

Then, when you are writing, you can print an “Individual Summary” for each character in your current chapter, so you’ve got the facts about them at your fingertips. When you are revising your first draft, you can use the same “Individual Summary” sheets for checking consistency.

Do be careful what you do and don’t tell the reader. In the first volume of the Harry Potter stories, the reader doesn’t need to know that Ron Weasley will become Harry Potter’s brother-in-law, but the author needs to keep track of such things. On the other hand, do remember that if you’ve recorded such a relationship in a genealogy program, the reader doesn’t know that until you explicitly tell them.

 

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