V is for Vade Mecum
Buk (African goddess); goddess of rivers and streams and the source of all life. It is from her essence that the River that Flows Between is made, and for a brief time, she was Anu’s consort. She was the only survivor among her pantheon after the second mage wars, and on coming to Arcadia, she succumbed to grief. Immortal, she cannot die, but neither can she coalesce and live. The river of her existence flows, but all that made Buk’s divine soul is irretrievably gone. –Notes from the Arcadian Compendium
* * *
‘I want you with me today, Mara,’ thought Horuseps, all the light of humor gone from his mind.
**What are you so worried about?** she asked, helping herself to a small brick of cheese. She had to scrape off the mold with her thumbnail. **Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this what you had such great fun setting in motion yesterday?**
‘I didn’t realize they’d band together this way. They never have before.’
**For all I know, you’re behind this too. Just another one of your little games to keep me from finding Connie.**
He laughed, drawing curious glances from the other Masters at the table. ‘I don’t use humans as my gamepieces, precious. They’re too unpredictable.’ –deleted scene from The Scholomance
* * *
SUPERNATURAL APPEARANCE MODIFIERS (roll d100)
1-2 Unusual skin color
5-8 Scales, snake-like
9-11 Scales, crocodilian, pebbled and raised
19-20 Winged (leathery)
21-22 Winged (feathers)
23-24 Winged (light/shadow, insubstantial)…—a small piece of my character generator
* * *
From the Latin vade (the imperative “Go!” or “Walk!”) and mecum (“with me”), meaning literally, “Walk with me,” the vade mecum is another name for the author’s compendium, a concise referential book in which notes for a particular work are kept. This can be an actual notebook, a file on your computer, or whatever helps you to keep your facts straight. It is also, bar none, the single most important tool in worldbuilding.
Lest you think I exaggerate, put your hands up if you’ve ever read a book wherein the main character’s name, hair or eye color changed mid-way through. Quite a few hands out there, I’m guessing. This is because it is ridiculously easy to blank on details, even if it’s your first book, let alone your fiftieth. When you write about a non-human character or non-Earth setting, your odds of forgetting the name of the slave girl or the color her eyes turn when aroused exponentially grows.
Writing is an act of intimacy between an author and the whole world, and like all intimate acts, different people will go about it in different ways. Not everybody keeps an author’s compendium. Ten years ago, I didn’t either. Now I can’t imagine not using one. In fact, I can’t even imagine using just one.
I have a separate compendium for every book I’ve written (sort of. There are two compendiums for the four-book Arcadia series, but there were also fifteen races to document, as well as the usual bestiary and botanical guides) and I carry it with me pretty much everywhere while I’m working. This way, I can write or sketch or remind myself to look this or that up when I get home whether I’m sitting around in the DMV or waiting for a movie to start. As time goes on, this notebook will fill up with snippets, doodles, lists of characters and their vital information, and post-it after post-it directing me to various reference books or websites.
When I start typing, a second compendium of sorts is made: the first file I create isn’t for the book itself, but for its notes—a cleaned-up version of my notebook’s contents along with snippets of story that may or may not make it into the final draft. I tend to write without an outline until very near the end of the book and I don’t write in a linear fashion, so a lot of my scenes float until I get a grip on the timeline. Also, having a place for deleted scenes makes it much less painful when it comes time to mutilate my favorite parts to make a better book.
In addition, I have a kind of Master Vade Mecum: a file on my computer containing my master list of characters (noting hair and eye color, any remarkable characteristics, and what book they appeared in). This is the list that prevents me from having all green-eyed heroines or putting someone named Marcus in every book. The only story elements that appear in this document are asterisks beside the names of any characters available for use in future books; John, Taryn’s ex-boyfriend from The Care and Feeding of Griffins, for example, returns as Norah’s boyfriend in Pool. By doing this, I put all my books inside the same canonical storyline, which makes it even more important that I keep track of all the pieces I have in play.
The flip side of the author’s compendium is the author’s conceptualizer. I’ve mentioned before how I wrote out my own fantasy role-playing game guides, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I also threw together my own system for how to roll up a character in a book. Yeah. With dice. Ten-sided dice mostly, although you’d need a full set to roll on everything. Because I’m awesome, that’s why.
Some of my characters leap from my head like Athena, fully grown and armored, spear in hand and owl on shoulder, but not all of them. In fact, I never got a good bead on Olivia, which is why I never really describe her. That s***’s just embarrassing. Hence the character generator, which randomly determines attributes like intelligence and endurance, physical appearance, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, and even elements of a backstory.
When it comes to making sense of all this information, organization is key. If you were to come to my house, you would find just a jaw-dropping mess of a work space and you would probably ask me what the heck I’m doing writing about organization. And I would run to my room in tears and huddle up on my bed with my plushie Jack Skellington while you stood outside my door, softly knocking and telling me you didn’t mean it like that while rolling your eyes. Later, you would take me out for a sundae and as we sat across the booth from one another, scraping caramel and soft-serve into a creamy swirl, your hand would just brush mine and our eyes would meet in silent, smiling apology.
What you didn’t understand about my desk is that it is organized, not for neatness, but to help me be in my world. By this perspective, my desk is a living piece of my vade mecum. Those notebooks cluttering up the bottom shelves of my bookcases are my compendiums; I use multi-subject notebooks with tabs so that I don’t ‘lose’ information—the first section is always for characters, the second for my alien cultures, the third for the alien world itself, and so on. The books stacked on the right side of the desk are referential to the work at hand; they’ll live there until the book is done. The toys littering the top of my computer tower are trophies of victory, each representing a different completed novel. The board on the wall above my desk may look like a mess of posters and papers, but it’s where I pin up various inspiring items, like bills. At the moment, there are some photos of old mining camps and caves for Pool, a list of my books with the number of F-bombs I drop in each one (whenever I break the standing record, I have to wear the pottymouth hat for a whole day), and some random pages from a calendar featuring sexy monsters that have nothing to do with my books but which are nevertheless inspiring as hell.
Webster’s dictionary defines a vade mecum first as an essential manual and second as an important object meant to be carried with the owner at all times. In that sense, I have failed at describing a vade mecum because mine is less of an object than a series of objects in orbit around a central idea. But it’s all those separate things—compendium, conceptualizer, pictures, research, work space—that together enable me to take an idea out of my head and put it into yours with the least amount of spillage. And in that sense, I believe I have described a vade mecum very well: Walk with me. Into Arcadia. Into the Scholomance. Into Cottonwood.
Walk with me.