The first part of the answer is that I find the characters and world as I write the first three chapters. These are heavily edited throughout the drafting process, but in the beginning I allow my Muse the freedom to breathe.
The second part of the answer is that the first three chapters don't have as much track laid down and are therefore easier (for me) to construct. I've only written one out of fifteen novels without having to resort to an outline of some sort at some point.
When writing Urban Fantasy, I find that it's virtually impossible for me not to create a mess without the structure an outline provides. There's simply too much going on. Over the past ten years, I've honed a spreadsheet that allows me to plot at a high level while still leaving room for creativity. It's also easily edited and transferable to any genre in which I'm dabbling. I literally can't write without it.
I use this template to track character and world building notes on secondary tabs as needed, but primarily I use the first tab, which has a place to track my word count, chapter progress, and high level outline. If I get stuck, need to add a chapter, or am writing a longer or shorter book it's also easy to add in extra rows to track these.
If you're still searching for a way to track your own work, I provide a link to a downloadable file as my thank you to you when you confirm your email sign up. Click here to sign up! It's free and never shared with anyone but moi, so don't be shy!
I'd love to hear about how you track your work. Please help your fellow authors out and share in the comments below.
Not another Kate!
I am a word alchemist, angel apologist--no, really, I'm very sorry about them--and urban fantasist. I reside in all possible worlds.