Information Management for Novels

When you’re writing almost anything, you need some way to make the different parts of the thing consistent with each other. You don’t want to keep searching back and forth in your prose; you need “auxiliary information” somewhere, a “bible” that retains ultimate truth, which you can refer to when you’re trying to remember something. We computer geeks refer to this as “external memory” and the process of maintaining it as “information management.” This post talks about the information I need to manage for my secondary-world fantasy (with occasional digressions), how I currently do it, and what I wish I could do instead.

I’ve heard that tools like Scrivener have a lot of author aids, but I haven’t learned those yet. I use simple document editors, in my case OpenOffice (mostly text files, but also the occasional spreadsheet or drawing). Someday perhaps I can make a followup post singing Scrivener’s praises, but that day is a way off; I’m not in the right head-space to learn a new technology just now. But even if you’re a Scrivener wizard, perhaps reading about the kindof information I’m keeping is worth looking at.
First of all, for some things Ican just use a text search. If I want to find all the places where minor character Fred does something, I can just search for that name, possibly with “match case” and “full word” options turned on. But as I add details about a character’s background – anything that I might have to mention again or have some chance of accidentally contradicting – I add it to the bible in a paragraph headed with the character’s name. For example, if I name a character’s 3rdchild, I add the name to a bullet list somewhere in the parent’s description. I don’t write this out in advance, unless there is something important I need to plan out. Thus I don’t name their other children, or even decide their sexes, until I need to put them in the story. The most minor of characters don’t get names and notes, since there’s no need (usually) to figure out if guard #1 is the same person as guard #3; any “inconsistencies” can be attributed to it being a different person.
For geography, like the names of the countries in my secondary world, and where they are in relation to each other, I started with text descriptions, but there is no substitute for a map where you can seethe 2-dimensional relationships among them. I recently bought Other World Mapper and am happy with it. With a couple of hours’ work I put together something that helped me fix several inconsistencies in the story. Some of this I could have done with a sketch map, much faster than with any mapping program I’ve heard of, but the extra effort was worth it when I realized some aspects of the story required me to change where various countries were in relation to rivers, mountains, and each other. I’d have had to redraw a hand map, but moving small stuff around on a computer screen was much faster. I once rearranged part of the story so certain events happened after other events that they’d originally preceded, which meant they were in a different region that had a different language. So I swapped two countries around – a simple move of two labels – which was much easier than redrawing a hand-made map.
For research notes of the most general sort, I don’t have a substitute for a good old prose document. When reading a research source, I take the same sort of (mostly)point-form notes anyone might do. Sometimes indenting bullet listswithin bullet listsis helpful – major topics at the outer level, related minor ones indented under their corresponding major one. But I’m starting to get to the point where I need to cross-link some information with other information, like on a wiki. I’m investigating WikidPad , but haven’t committed to it yet (there’s that thing about having to learn a new techology, though I haveedited other kinds of wiki before). I’ve just barely reached the point where my notes are getting complex enough to justify the time to learn it.
I’ve taken writing classes where we had to fill out a small spreadsheet with rows for each major character, and columns for major characteristics like name, role in story, gender, race or ethnicity, orientation, age, (dis)ability, and religion. This can help you decide if your cast is sufficiently diverse, in addition to just keeping track of key information. Big white spaces show you where you haven’t figured something out yet, and a column of white (or a different background colour)can show you an entire category where you haven’t thought things through. Next time I’ll probably set up the background for cells via conditional formatting, so theyare automatically yellow when blank.
My most complex spreadsheet was for a science fiction story which had a technobabble gravitic drive capable of accelerating continuously in normal space halfway to a “jump point” in the outer solar system, then flip over and decelerate. I needed to keep track of how far away the ship was from Earth, because of lightspeed delays in communication, and an approximation to relativistic effects so I could tell if there was any significant time dilation. I had to keep track of where things were in the ship’s day, and how long after event X some other event Y would take place – so that if I moved X, I automatically moved Y. There are programs like Aeon Timeline that will help with simple cases of events happening relative to each other, but my needs were complex enough to mandate a spreadsheet anyway. I had to change the ship’s maximum acceleration a couple of times, and watch for events getting too close to fixed points in the ship’s day like start and end of shifts. I had to make sure the ship reached its jump point in the middle of ship’s night, so passengers would be asleep during the very disturbing passage through the jump.
One makes a lot of decisions while creating a world. An important part of a “decision support system” is keeping track of why you made a certain decision; if you change the decision, the rationale needs to change. The reason this is important is that some decisions impact other ones, with potentially major consequences. There exist tools for this sort of thing, but they’re complex to use, and I don’t know of any that are free. I’ve not done such a great job of that so far, so have yet to think through how I’m going to do it – other than making sure to write down rationales in an easy-to-fine place. Probably right by the note recording the decision, with a big rationaleflag on it that I can easily search for.
There are plenty of things I haven’tfigured out, relevant to structural issues. Scrivener or other tools might support some or all of these; I just don’t know.
  • If I have an outline (which I do for the bronze age novel, but not for any of the others) I’d like to be able to get from the outline to the chapter or scene that corresponds to it. This is not the same as using a table of contents, because there could be multiple outline elements handled in a single chapter; three scenes in one chapter could be three outline entries. I can do that by including the outline at the end of the novel and using cross-references, but that’s awkward and possibly a little ugly and messes up the word count. Going the other way is awkward. If I’m on page 19 and want to find out where that is in the outline, I have to scroll to the end of the document, and notice that item 2 starts on page 15 and item 3 on page 21, so that I’m actually in item 2.
  • I’d love to be able to automatically keep track of how many words there are in each chapter. When I did this by hand I found that some were twice the average length, which led me to discover wordiness and pacing issues.
  • I’d love to be able to click on a proper noun (person or place name) and have it take me to the right spot in my worldbuilding notes. I have a writer contact who may be working on such a thing in their Copious Free Time , but availability is far off.
Maybe someday someone will have created the Ultimate Authoring Tool that links all these things together, but a piece of software like that might be so huge andcomplex (and thus buggy) that it’s scarcely usable.
For now, I’ll make do with the tech I have, but learn some of the tools I’ve linked above as I have time for new things.

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