On Writing

Do you have a Memory Palace?

11 Comments 15 May 2011

memory palace

Here’s a question for all authors out there. Do you ever struggle to remember the characters in your books? What about those incidental characters, created on the hoof?

I have to confess that I sometimes struggle, particularly once the book is published and I’ve moved onto the next story. This was brought home to me most forcibly this week when I was preparing for an interview on BBC Radio Leeds with Adam Pope to promote The Human Race. While gathering my thoughts and ideas about the book, the name of one of my main characters completely escaped me! Unforgiveable really, but perhaps not surprising as I killed the character in the first book and that character does not feature in the sequel, which I am knee-deep in finishing at the moment.

However it still bugged me and when I got home I remembered an article I had read in The Times about improving your memory. Still blushing at my own lapse, I dug it out and read it again for inspiration. Initially it was quite promising: the journalist Joshua Foer had covered the USA Memory Championships as a freelancer and, because he had such an appalling memory (he couldn’t even remember where he’d left his keys –something we have in common!) he decided to enter the following year. While training for the competition, one of his main techniques was to use what the ancient Greeks refer to as a Memory Palace: a simple mental technique of associating numbers, names or objects with vivid visual imagery in order to remember them more easily.

My Memory Palace

Some of the current memory masters have several hundred Memory Palaces and it clearly works. One poor soul could recall pi to 83,481 decimal points, while another was able to recite the whole of Paradise Lost. Obviously my goal was slightly less ambitious and I decided to start off with a simple task, aiming to recall just ten of my minor characters from The Human Race. I won’t bore you with their names but I dutifully located them all in my Memory Palace, by drawing upon my route up to my writing shed. I pictured one on the deck, one by the large rhododendron bush, another by the kids’ climbing frame, a fourth by an old quarry and so on.

Apparently the key to really good recall is imagining strange situations or stories, which incorporate the object or person that you are trying to remember. According to the 2,000-year-old Latin textbook, Rhetoricaad Herennium, “the funnier, lewder and more bizarre the better”.This was getting more fun by the minute! So, I dutifully began placing my characters in odd situations and, dare I say, rude postures – but it wasn’t working. One of my character’s names is Haraldur Sveinsson; another is called Magnus Morson. The immediate problem was that while I could remember their bawdy goings on at the location in the Palace, I couldn’t recall who was doing what!

So I had another idea.

Why not associate the characters with people I knew and place them in the situation? A little different, admittedly, but necessity is the mother of all invention. So for Haraldur Sveinsson, I used the name of my Grandpa, Harold and Sven-Göran Eriksson, the ex-England Football Manager. It seemed to work! In my Memory Palace I had my 101-year-old Grandpa with the ex-manager of England on the climbing frame. So far, so good.

Next: Magnus Morson. The presenter of Mastermind was called Magnus. I struggled a little bit with Morson but eventually settled on Magnus tapping out a Morse code signal on the deck. Two days later I tested myself.

My Memory Palace collapsed like a house of cards.

Was it Harold with Magnus or Sven with Haw, my Grandpa’s surname?And for some reason Ulrika Jonsson had entered my Memory Palace completely uninvited and I knew she wasn’t supposed to be there, but was connected to someone! Must be Eriksson as I know my Grandpa never dated her. Or was she with Magnus? It sounds Swedish. Now I’m confused, embarrassed and not sure if my character’s name is Sven Haw or Harold Erikson. Clearly I need a lot more practice, but I also need to write. I have now spent precious hours trying to remember these names!

Perhaps I should ditch the Memory Palace and follow what Einstein once said:

“Why should I memorize something I can so easily get from a book?”

I think I will take my chances next time, prepare better on the day and rely on the “Find” function in Microsoft Word if I am absolutely desperate to find the answer…

This post was selected for the 18th May 2011 edition of Writing Inspiration, Resources and Tips, hosted by Inspired To Write, the May 26th 2011 edition of Carnival of Storytelling, hosted by Be the Story, Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #8, hosted by The Book Designer, The Mad Editor’s Round-Up #30, hosted by Diary of a Mad Editor and the June 2011 edition of The Writer Tank Carnival, hosted by Writer Tank.

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11 Comments so far

  1. I’ve tried using a couple of those books to improve my memory, unfortunately I’d have to lay it down before I finished it to go do something or other and then couldn’t remember where I left it.

    Allan Douglas recently posted..Annual NASCAR Pilgrimage 2011

  2. Deborah says:

    I don’t have a memory palace – I rely on post cards, storing scenes and names in my brain and my faithful notebook. Does all that work? Er, sometimes! Read this after tweeting about walking in the woods whilst realisingI should be somewhere else… just had to peek! Thank you 🙂

    • O.C. Heaton says:

      Hi Deborah – I also do everything you do. I have to say I do forget character names. How strange is that! That’s where the memory palace would be useful for me I think.

      • Deborah says:

        I like the name ‘Memory Palace’- it has a good ring to it! I have just been given a wooden box with several compartments – now that has the look and feel of a Memory Palace… Maybe a different colour thread for each character, or a button… the idea is growing on me…not sure that would help me remember where I am supposed to be but it’d be fun and might just help with continuity!
        Deborah recently posted..All because of Bunty

  3. When I saw this post, I thought, “Ah, I’m not alone.” I keep a separate document with character names on it to help keep me straight. The worst is when I change a character’s name midway in the book, and I have to capture every use and change it. Oy.
    Robin Chalkley recently posted..Savannah

    • O.C. Heaton says:

      Hi Robin – indeed you’re not. Characters are so hard to remember which is frightening really but I think every author has the same problem. Funnily enough I was reminded of Memory Palaces the other night when I was watching the superb Sherlock Holmes on BBC i-player. I don’t know whether you watch it but in the latest episode Holmes is seen accessing his Memory Palace pulling ‘memories’ down from his storage units rather like Tom’s Cruise’s character in Minority Report. It was a great scene – if its good enough for the great SH then we’er alright!.

  4. Kelly Kotlinsky says:


    I feel the same way too.
    Kelly Kotlinsky recently posted..Ativan 1mg


  1. Blog Carnival Number Two: Freelance Writing - Inspired to Write | Inspired to Write - May 18, 2011

    […] Heaton presents Do you have a Memory Palace? posted at A Rush of Green. Creating a Memory Palace for your writing, a technique the ancient […]

  2. Carnival of Storytelling – May 26, 2011 | Be the Story - May 26, 2011

    […] Heaton presents Do you have a Memory Palace? posted at A Rush of Green, saying, “Here’s a question for all authors out there. Do you […]

  3. Self-Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #8 — The Book Designer - May 29, 2011

    […] Heaton presents Do you have a Memory Palace? posted at A Rush of Green, saying, “Here’s a question for all authors out there. Do you […]

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Reviews of The Human Race

Unputdownable. Yes, I know it's not a word, but it definitely applies here, anyway. That's the word I'm going with, to describe The Human Race by O.C. Heaton. - Hira N. Hasnain

An outstanding first novel from O.C. Heaton that catapults him into the Best Seller league… - Justine Bond

"This is an exciting, fast-paced read. The Human Race is a book that is very easy to forget to put down. Bring on part two!" - L. H. Bowers

"If you are looking for a well-plotted and well-written thriller to while away the hours of a long flight, this offering might suit you very well." - David Bryson, Amazon Top 50 Reviewer

For further reviews of The Human Race by O.C. Heaton click here.

Author Bio

Charles Heaton British thriller writer O.C. Heaton, author of The Human Race, is fascinated by the past, present and future of human evolution. (Image credit: Ross Parry Agency) Read More>>

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The BeachThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-timeLife of PiOuter DarkThe FirmAlexander 3: The Ends of the Earth: A Novel

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