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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Widdowson

The Indie-Author's Arsenal: Templates

pink roses with laptop, notebook, clips and watch

You’ve chosen your writing app, read the manual or watched a video and know how to use it, and you’re almost ready to start chapter one! But how well do you know your story? Do you know how it starts? How it ends? What happens in the middle? Or are you just going to wing it—see what comes out of your fingers as you type?


Help yourself out before you begin the first chapter, even if you’re a hard-core pantser, and at least write a synopsis. Or better yet, write an outline. Don’t know where to start? If you read my blog, "The Hero's Journey", then you know that there are story templates you can get to help you organize your book. I’ve used The Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat Writes a Novel, and a Murder Mystery Novel template provided with my Scrivener software. In my last blog, I gushed about Scrivener. And besides all the other things I said about why I love it, there’s also the fact that there are multiple free story templates you can load to help you organize your ideas as you begin writing.


But back to The Hero’s Journey. This template can be a great starting point for a lot of books and works well if you have a main character going on a quest, or if the story is about someone who has a single goal in mind. Check out this video from Overly Sarcastic Productions. It does a good job of explaining what The Hero’s Journey template is and what it is not. 


I actually began with The Hero’s Journey template when I wrote The RH Factor. But when I first came up with the story idea, it was not a classic murder mystery. It had murder in it, but it was really more of a sci-fi than a murder mystery. The RH Serum was something completely different than what it turned into in the final version of the book. I’d tell you what it was, but I may write that book one day. So after the story starting morphing, it no longer fit into The Hero’s Journey structure. That led me to go on the hunt for help on how to write a murder mystery. I had never written one before and always felt it was beyond my capability. But I still liked my story, and I was determined to finish it!


So I searched the internet on “how to write a murder mystery”, and one of the first things that popped up was the book, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, by James N. Frey. I talked about this a little bit in my blog, "Author Anthropology: Part 4". This book is full of great tips on how to write protagonists readers can root for and antagonists that you root against but that you can also understand and relate to. It also has helpful hints on creating red herrings, clues, and how to misdirect your reader. It was exactly what I needed! As I continued looking through my search results, I also discovered a free Murder Mystery Novel template for Scrivener. There are actually several available, and each is tailored to a specific type of mystery (cozy, pulp, classic, etc.).


If you’re a Scrivener user, check out this list of free Scrivener templates to help you organize your story ideas and timeline. They’ve been helpfully gathered together on one webpage by Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur. Kindlepreneur is a resource I use often when searching for not only writing tips, but also advice on self-publishing.


What if you’re not using Scrivener? There are, of course, other templates. When you do your research to choose a writing application, check what templates are provided with it. There are also several available in PDF format from The Novel Factory that represent a variety of genres. You can easily convert them to use in whatever application you are using to write your book.


In addition to story templates, there are other guidelines that can help you organize and write your story. The most popular help you develop your characters, settings, and scenes. I talked about character sheets in my blog, “Creating Believable Characters”. One of the first things I include in my character sheet is a picture. The rest is a list of questions to help me really dive into who my characters are so I can write more accurately and believably in their voice. I use a custom sheet that I've created from questions I liked from lots of different ones I found in books and on the internet. Then I expanded it by adding a few queries of my own. Plus, I use the MBTI (Myer’s-Briggs Type Indicator) personality test to help me get even deeper.


I also use a template to help me write about each major location in my book, with information like: What city is the setting located in? What is around it (buildings, trees, parking lot, etc.)? What does the building, room, park, etc. look like? What are the sounds and smells associated with the location? So far, all my books are based in Seattle and the surrounding areas, and when someone familiar with the PNW (Pacific Northwest) reads one of my books, I don’t want them to think, That kind of tree can’t grow there, or It doesn’t take that long to get from Redmond to North Bend. But that doesn’t mean I don’t create fictitious homes in a location where there are none, or create a completely fabricated business.


I try to make my locations believable (and some of them are actual places), by creating a Google MyMap for each book and plotting every important setting. So, if I’m talking about a character driving from one location to another, for instance, I know the distance between the two points. That helps with the story timeline because I know if it will take a character ten minutes or two hours to get from one point to the other. I can also put the pegman down on the street in MyMap and travel virtually along the route to help me describe what my character is seeing. Besides giving the reader a very realistic description, it’s also fun to create!


If creating a customized Google map to plot the locations in your novel sounds appealing, check out this blog from Aliventures.com to help you get started. In addition to her directions, I also like to add an image of the location in my map marker. When you create the marker, in the location info pop-up box, there’s a little camera icon in the bottom right-hand corner. Click that icon and simply add a picture.


To get pictures for my characters and locations, I do internet searches for images that match what I had in mind. For example, “tall 20-something, dark-haired woman with green eyes”. Or “glass building with concrete pillars”. Then I flip through the pics until I find one I like. I also love browsing through real-estate sites like redfin.com or zillow.com, when trying to find the perfect house for a character. Remember, the outside does not have to be the same house as the inside.


You say you still aren’t sold on templates? No worries. There’s no rule saying you have to use them. But at some point, you may find yourself stuck, your characters seem one-dimensional, your timeline isn’t working, the story is dragging, or you have no idea what happens in the middle of the book. Whatever the story problem is, it can often be helped by starting with some structure to both your characters and your story before you write. And there’s no reason you can’t get your story back on track by applying a structure after you’ve already started writing. It’s not the ideal method, but it can be done. I know, because I’ve done it!


But if templates are not your thing, don’t use them! If you can write an entire novel without them, just do it! As Anne Rice said, “Don’t bend; don’t water it down, don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” I love this quote. I think it can be applied to everything about life. It’s so easy to feel pressured by others—to feel like you should do what everyone else is doing or telling you you should do. My hope is that something I’ve shared here will help make your writing experience easier or more enjoyable. But, it’s your book. Write it your way. The tools are not paramount. What’s most important, is that you write!


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