I decided to participate on a whim, when a former Creative Writing classmate sent me an invite to NaNo on Facebook on Halloween.
I have had this novel idea kicking around in my head for a while now--I am using the opening image I wrote about here, in fact, though not in this exact form--so I am not starting from absolute scratch.
I like to outline, and had good luck using Holly Lisle's notecarding idea, slightly modified for use with a first person set-up. I started out doing that--and wound up abandoning it, by the way, because I couldn't get the story to coalesce--and decided to take a brief detour to get my characters straight.
Now, character sheets are one of those things I think are tremendously helpful. Unfortunately, they are also one of those things that lend themselves to being procrastination helpers. This template, for example, has 18 sections, with 31 questions in the first two sections alone. (I was going to count them all, but I got bored quickly.) This one, from actual published author Charlotte Dillon, is nearly as bad--there are only six sections, but the first section has 25 things to fill out all on its own, and there's also a freaking list of interview questions for you to ask your main characters.
And while some of this stuff is certainly important, and I agree that you need to know at least your protagonist inside and out, much of it is unimportant crap. Exactly what's crap varies by author, admittedly, but one thing that is in both of those character sheets which I really question the value of is astrological sign. Unless your character is very superstitious, and your world is exactly the one we live in now--or you're plagiarizing "Symbols Are a Percussion Instrument"--stopping to figure out whether your protagonist is a Sagittarius or a Libra is not going to add anything to your understanding of your character. (I strongly suspect the reason behind this is to help you craft strongly clichèd characters. No need for an actual personality when you can crib traits from an astrological chart!)
Still, I wanted something. And I had these index cards. So I decided to make character cards. Like so ('scuse the shitty iPod pic; it's all I've got right now):
You can see what I did here. Top has the character's name as she's usually referred to in the novel, then you get the full name, age, job title, etc. For the most part, I've left off labels, and not worried myself about little flubs (yeah--regional magical examiner isn't RMI).
Here's the one for her sidekick:
You can see that the information is a bit different here, because different things are important about this character.
Two new things for me: Every character has a well-defined failing and an equally well-defined goal. Basic stuff, but I haven't been writing it down; instead I've been winging it, and I don't think that works as well.
I like this format. It forces me to keep things short, it's flexible (I have things in different order on one or two of the others), and it's handy. I may not have a clue what Deontay's star sign is, but it's okay because he doesn't either.
If you're more than mildly curious, I'm going to drop the first page of writing in behind a break. That way if you want to read it, you can; if you don't, you won't have to do a lot of scrolling to get to the next post.
Still here? Cool. I like this opening. I'm breaking a couple of rules here, but I think it flows well. Here ya go:
Everyone seems to think graveyards are a great place to find ghosts. They couldn’t be more wrong. Think about it for a minute. If you were a ghost, where would you want to spend eternity—near the people and places you loved while alive, or in a park filled with nothing but graves and other dead things?
Ghosts aren’t as common as everyone seems to think, either. For one, a person has to really want to stay around to turn into a ghost, and most souls want to move on to the next thing. For another, embalming a corpse seems to stop the ghost from sticking around. I think it makes it impossible for a soul to recognize its earthly remains.
It was a very specific set of circumstances, then, that led Deontay and me to stand in an East Side cemetery shortly before sunset, hoping to find a ghost. After three days, a soul will move on from its body—usually to the Afterlife, but sometimes to an Earthly residence. Guessing where that ghost will wind up is tricky, so trying to catch it before then is a good idea. If it turns out to be a ghost at all.
Murder victims? They are pretty likely to ghost up. Hilda Mueller had been ripped to shreds on the access road of I-10, just outside of Columbus, Texas. An Orthodox Jew, she had not been embalmed, and had been buried the day after her death. I figured my chances of finding a ghost were pretty good.
Beth-El cemetery is one of many in a very small area on San Antonio’s East Side. They are the oldest in the city, oddly located in a rundown area of town. Most of the cemeteries are pretty run-down themselves, with knocked over stones and smashed statuary, but Beth-El and the other Jewish cemetery are in excellent repair, fully fenced, festooned with security cameras, and the recipients of regular landscaping. They are crowded little cemeteries, though, with graves nearly touching and high hedges hemming it all in claustrophobically.
Hilda Mueller’s grave was improbably located near the center of the cemetery. There was not yet a headstone, only a temporary marker from the funeral home. Small and black, the only notation on it was ‘H. Mueller.’ She had been only 42, barely old enough to begin considering her own mortality; nowhere near old enough to think about pre-ordering a tombstone. Raw dirt covered the grave, tamped down but already cracking from ever-present summer drought. I sat cross-legged in the grass just beyond the dirt’s edge. Deontay Williams, my self-appointed partner, stood behind me doing his best G-man right down to black suit, thin tie, and right hand clasped around his left wrist.
“Vangie? Think we can get this show on the road soon?”
Funny thing? I’m the federal employee. I’m with the Office of Magical Investigations; the Regional Magical Examiner for South and West Texas. My name is Evangeline Aldrich, or “Please don’t shoot me,” if you’re nasty.