Monday, October 1, 2018

The Importance of Bibles

by Janis Patterson

Be at ease – this is not a religious rant. I am using ‘bible’ in the purely secular definition, i.e., ‘a book that is considered the most important one for a particular subject.’ (Just to put things straight, Bible with a capital ‘B’ is the religious book; bible with a small ‘b’ is the definitely un-religious context I’m using here.)

I’m talking about the book about your book.

Confused? You shouldn’t be, either about bibles or books that obviously haven’t had one. We’ve all read a book where a minor character changes names somewhere in the book – Mavis the bookkeeper becomes Maura somewhere around chapter 22, for example. Or a location shifts without reason or warning – the crime scene is located north of the river for most of the book, then suddenly migrates to south of the river for a chapter or two, then miraculously appears back on the north side. The detective who favors a Beretta suddenly and without justification starts carrying a Glock. Such mistakes are not only confusing and irritating to the reader, they are the sign of a lazy writer.

When I become queen of the universe, one of my proclamations is going to be that everyone writing a book has to do a bible. Many writers – especially the good ones – already do. There are all kinds of formats for bibles, from expensive software to cheap spiral bound notebooks, but however they work all serve to keep your characters, locations, timeline and odd facts straight.

I do a bible for every book I write, and mine are about as simple as you can get. (Warning – I’m a pantser, so if you’re a plotter or some other kind of writer, you’ll have to adapt this to your particular process.) When I open a new file to start a new book, I open two – one for the manuscript, one for the bible. As I write and something (character, location, whatever) appears, I flip over to the bible and make a note of it. Just a short note with all the pertinent information – the bigger part that particular whatever plays in the story, the bigger note it gets. Later on, if I reveal something more about that whatever, I add it to their entry in the bible. Entries are usually single spaced with double spaces in between one and the next to set them off.

I don’t bother to alphabetize or rate entries according to importance – I just note them down as they appear. Believe it or not, this doesn’t create a problem when I have to go look something up several chapters later. As I said, the entries are short and very factual, and for most books the entire bible doesn’t run more than 3-4 pages – a lot easier to flip through than going back through the whole manuscript to find the name of Lady Bellingstoke’s butler or whatever.

The one exception to this generality was my semi-paranormal gothic INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS – the bible for that ran almost eighteen (yes, 18!) pages of dense copy. In my defense, however, I will say that book was more complex than any other I’ve ever done, with a romantic storyline, a father/daughter storyline, a sort-of-ghost story and seven different books written about seven different worlds, all of which had a direct bearing on the main action of the novel! All in one book… When I sent in the final conceptual manuscript to my editor I also sent in a copy of the bible, for which I got an almost sobbingly-happy letter of thanks from the copy editor.

Writing a book is hard enough without tripping yourself up on the minutiae. Keep a bible, write down every fact and name as it happens, and your life will become so much easier – and so will your editor’s!


  1. What a splendid idea! Thanks. Ages. For some reason, I have the worst time trying to keep characters' ages straight. Starting my bible (little b) right now.

  2. I completely agree that we need to keep our characters straight as well as our plot line and that does require a bible. We used to call it an outline but really that isn't specific enough.

  3. I call them cheat sheets. Lol I never remember names, places, times, and have to refer to the sheets or I'd be lost.It"s good to know I'm not the only one with an imperfect memory!

  4. I have a spreadsheet where I keep characters' ages so when they meet they are all the right age.