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When writing, I always have tons of ideas about the universe I'm creating as a whole: People, Places, Timelines.

I'm just struggling to organize it. I'd like to avoid inconsistencies in later stories, requiring the need for a retcon or embarrassing reactions from your audience.

Should I try a Wiki like MediaWiki? That requires a Web Server and database and is just very "heavy". Should I use the Master Catalog in Celtx? That keeps everything in once place and I can easily share it and take it with me on my laptop, but it's not exactly a great interface. Should I just have a ton of Word Documents? That is even worse, now I can't really link between them properly. One big Word Document? Really hard to keep a good overview.

What do YOU use to keep track of your world?

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Just regarding the wiki issue, there are sites which'll host small private wikis like you'll want - I've come across wikidot.com . So if that's something you'd like to try, you can dabble in it pretty easily. –  Standback May 29 '11 at 19:33
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10 Answers 10

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Tools like Scrivener help me out a lot. It lets you build one workspace that contains character profiles, scene descriptions, notes (and of course, your story).

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that looks great! Shame it is for MacOS though. I am a Windows user. –  Codemwnci Nov 21 '10 at 8:51
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The scrivener beta for windows is out now. literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows –  Alan Nov 21 '10 at 15:04
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This actually looks fantastic: Mac and Windows and it keeps everything in simple RTFD files, so writing a Version Control/Publishing system for it is simple enough. –  Michael Stum Nov 22 '10 at 3:08
    
I'm amazed! I feel more inclined to purchase the Mac one because it's more established, but I wonder if there is a technical reason (functionality) why Windows Scrivener is less expensive? –  ina Dec 15 '11 at 2:51
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I have used a Wiki to help me organize my thoughts for a novel I was writing in the past. It is actually in quite a helpful format, because you can so easily link from one concept to another. Having pages for separate characters, groups, locales, etc. is extremely helpful. When writing chapter outlines on the wiki, you can easily link to all settings and characters present in that chapter.

Overall, I would recommend this method. It can take quite a while to fill out all the details in the wiki, but that is honestly a good thing because you are able to think through everything so thoroughly.

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Since you are pro-wiki and have used one in the past, was this a locally-installed one or hosted, and how easily is it backed up? –  Zayne S Halsall Nov 21 '10 at 16:31
    
It was a friend's private wiki so I was not the administrator. All I can vouch for is its usefulness. –  StrixVaria Nov 21 '10 at 18:25
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WikidPad (wikidpad.sourceforge.net) is an open source, cross platform wiki that runs as a desktop app. It stores its data in flat files, so you can back everything up easily. –  jalefkowit Apr 14 '11 at 18:02
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Some software for making a story bible:

  • Tiddlywiki - a free, personal wiki - mentioned above. It's a single html file, so it's very lightweight. I used this for a while and it worked well. It's very easy to tag things and link items together.
  • Evernote - also good for tagging, not so good for linking.
  • Scrivener - mentioned above, included here because it's what I actually use. Since I also plan and write in Scrivener, keeping character and world notes there makes it very fast to look things up.

The tricky parts are keeping the story bible up to date when you change things, and remembering to look at it.

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Based on my own experiences, there are two separate needs writers have for organization.

First is structure. Do you need a pre-existing system to help guild you and flesh out your project? Writing applications, for example, have preset functions and spaces for plots, characters, scenes.

You fill in the blanks, fill out the cards, or connect the dots accordingly. You just start using the software's set workflow and taxonomy, and you stay organized.

Second need is storage and access. Here, you do not want a structure imposed on you. You just want to file your stuff in a way you can reference fast and easy.

My preference, because I am a left-brained geek, is to use a wiki with a structure I create beforehand.

What kills wikis, imho, is lack of curation. You need to tend your wiki like a garden, pulling weeds, moving plants around out of the shade or into it, planting seeds, trimming, watering. Ok, I've killed the metaphor enough.

Point is, you've got to work on your organization system as well as in it, as you go, else you soon suffer information sprawl and chaos.

If this sounds awful to you, then go with the first option and buy something off the shelf that generally takes care of structure for you.

I prefer wikis, and my favourite wiki is PBWorks.com, which at this time is free for non-commercial and personal project use. Thumbs up, as well, on TiddlyWiki and Wikipad, mentioned by others.

Another option is Wordpress. Host your own, or let wordpress.com do it for you for free. Create all the pages you want. Apply categories and tags for easy cross-referencing.

If you prefer a Windows app, then I heartily recommend MyInfo. Version 6 just released, and it offers great features that make it extremely accessible to writers looking to build a base of information for reference.

Another option, if you use MSOffice, is OneNote. It offers more freeform organization on a page than wikis and other software.

Your first consideration is whether you need a pre-existing structure and system, or if you want to create your own. Then go from there.

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I'm a huge fan of emacs org-mode, but it's not for everyone.

Pros:

  • Can be used locally, without internet access.
  • If you don't have emacs org-mode available, the files are still very human-readable in a plain text editor.
  • Very revision control friendly, so you can easily track changes using git, mercurial, or your favorite revision control system, and/or coordinate collaboration with others.
  • If you need to access your org-mode notes from multiple locations, it is extremely easy to sync them to any remote storage system to/from your various machines (or, if you are using revision control, just throw them on your github/gitorious/bitbucket account).
  • Because (like all of emacs) org-mode is heavily keybound, it is very fast to use. You don't have to constantly stop typing to mouse around so that you can move something to a different place in your notes/outline or add/change tags, etc.
  • Incredible feature set -- off the top of my head:

    • Hierarchical outlining of notes
    • Tagging (free tagging or user defined sets)
    • Customizeable templates ( i.e. you can decide what a character entry, a setting entry, etc. should look like)
    • Attributes (you can give all characters ages, for example, and conditionally include/exclude this data when you export or print).
    • Archiving
    • Easy re-organization
    • Hyperlinks (internal and external)
    • Mark "TODO" items and track how many are done (by x/y or % complete)
    • Section folding (hide things under headlines when you don't need it.
    • Easily keep writing, character notes, wold-building notes, etc. in the same place
    • Agenda mode can collect todos from separate files so you can easily see an overview
    • Export to plain text (UTF-8 or ASCII), HTML, LaTeX, DocBook, PDF, TaskJuggler, Freemind, and more.
    • Many other things I'm not thinking of.
    • Mobile app lets you use your org-mode notes easily from Android Devices or iThings

Cons:

  • Learning org-mode is non-trivial, especially if you aren't already an emacs user. Expect to spend a couple of weeks with a cheat sheet next to your computer before you are using it quickly and fluidly.
  • You will probably want to turn your Caps Lock into an extra Ctrl key to avoid sore pinky finger from all that Ctrl-something hotkey use.
  • You may eventually begin to mutter Emacs lisp in your sleep.
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This is really neat. Certainly not for everyone, but I might have to check this out. I've been avoiding emacs for years because I'm afraid of moving my life to a text editor, but this might be worth a look. –  Chris Kinniburgh Oct 15 '11 at 0:40
    
I will plus 1 this if you could link to tutorials for how to make emacs do tagging and putting notes in the same place without getting in a mess or having to read a lot of XML mess in-between! –  ina Dec 15 '11 at 2:50
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A MediaWiki installation isn't "heavy", or at least doesn't require anything more complicated than your standard webserver and MySQL that any decent host will already have. If anything, it's less complicated and memory-intensive than a Wordpress install.

If hosting is a problem though, I have heard of a "TiddlyWiki" that can be stored anywhere easily, even on a USB stick. There's also a large range of other wiki platforms available.

MediaWiki is a good versatile platform to start on though, I use one myself.

If you need a consistent place to keep all sorts of related files, then I'd recommend Dropbox. It's a nice free cross-platform storage solution.

I would warn heavily against Word documents though. That's a whole mess of proprietary nonsense and a bad fit for the data storage you need. You need some sort of database, and Word is horrible for that purpose.

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This "proprietary nonsense" you mention - have you had direct experience of it? Are your concerns IT- or publishing-related? In my objective experience most everyone has and can open/access MS Word documents... –  Zayne S Halsall Nov 21 '10 at 16:30
    
+1 with Zayne S. Halsall. –  JFW Nov 24 '10 at 13:05
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I got halfway through typing a response before I remembered that people much smarter and more thorough than I have already explained how horrible Word files are: goldmark.org/netrants/no-word/attach.html and en.nothingisreal.com/wiki/… –  Tim Nov 26 '10 at 4:19
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I've written my own tool: ePen. It comes with an automatic wiki: If it finds a character name in the text, you get a link. It's not for the faint of heart but I'm using it to write on my story "Haul" ATM.

Before that, I used the MoinMoin wiki. I prefer MoinMoin over MediaWiki for these reasons:

  • More simple syntax
  • Fast (I hate it when I have to wait after a click)
  • No database! It's just a bunch of files which you can easily back up.
  • Written in Python
  • Runs locally on your laptop or on your web server. If you need to, you can have both and synchronize the two.
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How does ePen compare to yWriter? –  ina Dec 15 '11 at 2:48
    
yWrite is more mature :-( I didn't have much time to add all the features I'm still missing. –  Aaron Digulla Dec 15 '11 at 11:58
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If you're more a more visual thinker, you might consider Personal Brain.

It's a mind-mapper, but better than any other I've tried - you can easily establish categorized relationships between elements in a non-linear way that normal text/word files don't really permit. I've used it a lot in game design.

For example, I'll have top-level categories like Characters, Locations, and Timeline. My characters Luke and Vader are children of the Characters node. Luke has two sibling nodes of Hoth and Ep5. Hoth, of course, is a child of Locations and Ep5 is a child of Timeline.

Then each node has an RTF file that comes up when it's selected in the view.

The only thing the application's no good for is outputting data for presentations. However, if it's just intended for your own organization purposes, it's great.

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I don't usually hold with anything other than a hard core of text files in a folder.

But when things get stupidly complex I find myself turning to WikidPad which is about as complex as I like to make things.

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I've just found this free online mind mapping flash software: https://bubbl.us/

It is very simple to use (a little like thebrain cited above but with probably less features, it's free though)

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