Many of the reviews of the books in my Alpine Grove series mention how much they enjoy reading about the town itself. One reviewer said that he felt like he could draw a map based on the books and several folks want to move there. Just as in real small towns, in the fictional town of Alpine Grove, you tend to encounter people you know.
Although readers love the fact that new characters meet and interact with established characters, it can make matters more complex for the writer. For example, I included a cameo of Becca and Jack from the fourth novel (Snow Furries) in the tenth novel (Daydream Retriever). Anyone who has read Snow Furries knows that Becca talks really fast, Jack is a somewhat philosophical forester, and the couple live in a small log cabin owned by yet another character. If Becca doesn’t sound like she did in Snow Furries or I inadvertently change details like where she lives, readers will notice and tell me about it.
Because the characters in my books have pets, I need to keep track of the critter personalities too. My readers are passionate pet lovers, so Swoosie the Samoyed had better continue to try and eat everything in sight whenever she appears on a page. Readers know that Roxy the dachshund owned by Tracy the vet tech likes to get into small spaces and Linus the big hairy brown dog is a mellow sweetheart. All of the animals have to remain in character just as much as the humans do.
Keeping It Real
For me, one key to retaining writerly sanity is to keep notes about all the characters that appear in a book. I use Scrivener, so within the book project, I create a reference page using the built-in character sketch template. The template has sections for the person’s physical description, background, occupation, quirks, and conflicts.
Although I don’t go completely nuts on details, I fill in the basics before I start writing a new novel. I also select a Myers-Brigg type for the main characters. Whether or not you buy into the Myers-Brigg system, it does work as a way to differentiate personalities. For example, Beth Connelly in Bark to the Future is a geeky INTP and her introverted personality has a big effect on how she behaves throughout the novel. In a similar way, I write out the animal personalities. For example, Tessa the golden retriever is a hyperactive nutball and that affects her actions in the story.
A Series Bible Is Your Friend
It may seem like a lot of work to write down so much for each book, but now that I have ten books in my series, I’m even happier that I included such detailed information. Around book 5 or so, I created a separate “Alpine Grove Reference” Scrivener project. Now when I finish a novel, I copy the character sheets and notes into the master project, so I can refer to it later.
Right now, I’m writing a spin-off series, which starts in (you guessed it) Alpine Grove. Thanks to the series bible, I was able to easily remember locations and throw in a few nods to people that regular readers will recognize. When you populate a small town where everyone knows your name, you’d better remember who everybody is.