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I'm currently working on a piece which has characters coming and going. Basically, sometimes a side character is near the main (also point-of-view) character, and sometimes that same side character is somewhere else. To give you an idea of its length, it's currently about 23,000 words of English prose, and it's about half done from the perspective of the time period I want to cover in the finished piece.

Every time I want to refer to one of the side characters, I have to scroll (or search) back in the text in order to see whether the main character would actually be able to see what the particular side character is doing or not, or whether the side character is nearby or not, just to ensure that a character doesn't show up when they are already there or leave when they're already away. This gets old really quickly, and it's even worse when the characters aren't referred to by name in the prose.

  • What's a good way to keep track of where a character is, throughout a longer narrative?

For my writing, I'm using LibreOffice Writer (which, for those not familiar with it, is basically your run-of-the-mill page-oriented word processor). I did try Scrivener for a while since just about everyone here seems enthusiastic about it, but it just didn't work all that well for me, so please don't suggest that I move to that.

I'm happy with using a separate tool if that's the best way, but I do want something that doesn't take inordinate amounts of effort to keep in sync with the text I'm working on.

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    If someone has ideas for better tags, by all means please feel free to retag. – a CVn Aug 27 '17 at 11:16
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I use Excel.

You do have to keep track of your own material — nothing will do it for you — but a basic spreadsheet with columns of Chapter, Scene, Location, Day of Week, Time of Day, and maybe Characters will do wonders for keeping you organized.

My answer to Is there any good time-line software out there? is similar enough to useful, but it's not identical, so I'll adapt that idea here:

Ch4|Sc16|The docks|Wed|03:12|Tony
Ch4|Sc17|The docks|Wed|04:17|Sasha and Bear
Ch4|Sc18|in front of Sasha's house|Wed|12:30ish|Alex, David, Elliot
Ch4|Sc19|FLASHBACK Sasha's house|N/A, First Day of School|Morning|Sasha, Alex, Bear, Mom
Ch4|Sc20|Sasha's house|Wed|afternoon|Sasha,Alex, David, Elliot

Some notes: for times, you can use vague terms like "12:30ish" and "afternoon" or "morning." It doesn't have to be precise if your narrative doesn't require it.

If you have people in multiple cities at the same time, you will need columns for each city so you can keep track of the time difference. This is very important if your story has modern technology (the phone or greater) so that if Person A is in Berlin and Person B is in Hong Kong, they're aware of who might be waking up whom and so on.

I added in a FLASHBACK note, so that it's clear that while the action of the scene is taking place 20 years back, it's not occurring in the "present" of the narrative.

If Sasha leaves the docks, at the end of the scene, add that in your last column. "Sasha and Bear talk, then argue. Sasha leaves." Maybe you have a row in between saying "Sasha en route home" or something.

The upshot is that keeping notes in a row-by-column condensed format can be very useful in shorthand terms of figuring out where and when everyone is.

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Like Loren's solution; I just use a separate document in another window (click "Window" then "New Window") which I normally have minimized on the task bar. I use LibreOffice too, my approach is just another document, with usually one page per chapter and "notes".

I do not keep thorough notes! My approach instead is that I always look at my notes first, and if I ever DO have to go look something up from the past (or future since I write in a patchwork style), even once, THEN I do the work of adding that information to the notes. On the grounds that if I had to look it up once, I probably will have to look it up again.

So I don't keep track of every character and where they are and at what stage of development their character may be (e.g. "had fistfight with Bryce"). If I do add something, I may even include some fraction of the chapter (e.g. "at start", "near half", "page 8") to help me find the passage I wrote.

Very low tech. For me, very easy and effective to use.

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Do you have a lot of different specific places you want to keep track of, or just a few at a time?

Personally for me a non-digital approach works best. I have a whiteboard with a few different locations on it, and sticky notes with the names of the characters. When they go somewhere else I just move them on the whiteboard while writing on my laptop.

This gives me the ability to see in one glance where someone is, without having to switch screens on my laptop and stop my flow of writing. Sometimes (depending on the story) I also use different colors for different kind of characters for an even better overview.

This only works if you don't have too much different locations, and if you are writing chronologically. If you are switching a lot between different chapters during different moments it's pretty useless.

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I use Aeon Timeline for that purpose. When I create an event in the timeline, I determine where the event happens and who is involved. I can then choose to view all the events in a given place (and see who was involved) or to see all the events where a given character was present. It is also possible to attribute colours to events, so you could color code either for characters or places and be able to get a feel for who is where with a single look.

However, you do have to create the events yourself, unless you use Scrivener and use the Sync tool.

Another thing I use is schematics / drawings if it's a matter of one or two scenes. Once I wrote a scene which involved about 20 people in a room. I made a scheme of the room (and its features) then located all the characters, as well as whether they were sitting or standing and who was having parallel conversations with whom. Half-way, a few people left and returned to occupy different places so I copied the first diagram and noted the changes.

The scheme is also useful if it spans a house (or palace, as it is my case). If it spans a country, I'd suggest an A3 map with the places your characters frequent (or several copies of it). Then add a manual time and chapter/scene stamp at the top and jot down where everyone is. If you're like me and never recall how long it takes to travel from A to B, you can add arrows with the travelling times.

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LibreOffice supports page headers and footers. Since you are trying to track character locations across the length of your narrative, list all your characters with their starting locations in the header on the first page. Then as characters move around, change their entry in the header on the page where the move occurs. Since headers carry forward from page to page, the location map which you store in them should remain current relative to the story events throughout the initial writing phase.

Just make sure to transcribe those headers into something like Lauren's spreadsheet once your first draft is finished. Then delete all your headers before starting your edit phase.

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Looks like I came up with my own approach in the end. At least, nobody seems to have mentioned it.

LibreOffice Writer (and probably most other word processors) supports adding comments. They are displayed in the sidebar, exist outside of the text itself, yet are attached to a location in the text (so, for example, flow with the text).

What I ended up doing was to, whenever a character moves to a new location, I add a (very) brief comment that lists the characters per location.

Especially since I don't need to track a large number of locations and write mostly (but not exclusively) chronologically, this works nicely for me.

If I find myself wondering where someone is, I'll just scroll up to the most recent comment, and look for the name of the character.

If I need a character to be in a new location, I'll write whatever makes sense in the prose so that they are now in the new location, then copy the most recent comment and move their name from where they were previously to where they need to be.

This also has the bonus feature that deleting all comments is just two clicks from any comment.

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In a first draft characters are where you need them to be, as many times as you desire.

When writing the first draft, either I have planned it, and I know already where everybody is, or I haven't planned anything, this there is no need to keep track of location details.

I'd also add that in my first novels I got stuck in such exercises as the one from this question. It took time to realize that they were just self made excuse to procrastinate writing the second half of the book.

During revision I keep track of locations with a table: characters as columns and chapters as rows. In each cell the location, and sometimes even the inventory.

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