Guest Post: Creating a Wiki

I was talking to Rob a while back and he told me about the wiki he’d created for his then newborn epic fantasy series. I’d looked it it, thought “that’s a lot of work…” But when it came up again as we were talking about books (his third is about to come out, release party at LibertyCon!) he pointed out that while yes, it’s a lot of work (and you’ll see more about that in this post) it’s also a fully searchable series bible, among other things. This got me thinking, as I am starting to gain momentum on the space opera that wants to be a series, and realised that I need to start the bible for that. So I asked Rob if he’d be willing to do a guest post for me at some point in the future. I went back to writing and fiddling with fractals, and didn’t think about it. Three hours later… Rob, you are a machine, you know that, right? Oh – and check out Rob’s books. They are a great blend of Noir Detective and Fantasy and totally different than mine are. We like them a lot. 

Lake most deep_

Greetings loyal readers of Cedar Sanderson, my name is Rob Howell and Cedar has asked me to write a post about creating a wiki. As a new writer, many people suggested to me that I create a bible of my world from the start. Since I was a website builder in my former life, I chose to create my bible in the form of a wiki.

A wiki provided a number of advantages to me. Obviously, it’s searchable. Much of the bible’s organization is inherent to the process, like connecting people to places and other links. This organization was particularly to me because I am creating an entire world for a large story arc, not simply a few towns or regions. My bible needed to have a global perspective, and the scalable nature of the wiki appealed to me. Also, since I am a fan who really likes to learn about the world creation of my favorite authors, I guessed that there are readers like myself who would enjoy seeing my world creation as it happens.

The first thing you need to do to create a wiki is to pick a software platform to run it. There are a number of choices out there, and many of them are free. The two that I have the most experience with are Wikia (www.wikia.com) and TikiWiki (https://tiki.org/HomePage). Both are free options, and in the end I chose TikiWiki.

Initially, I went with Wikia. It is fantastically easy software to use, being mostly WYSIWYG, and includes many great options. It provides a forum, a place to start a blog, interactivity with social media, and commenting available for each page. It has a variety of themes available. Like most WYSIWYG web editors, I found that I could do some things easier or more in the way I wanted by using my HTML and CSS writing skills, but these were not necessary to create a good-looking wiki smoothly and quickly.

Wikia has one huge problem from my perspective, however, which was a deal-breaker for me. It is designed based on the wiki ideal of crowd contributions, and there is no way that you can completely lock down who can edit pages. I have horror stories of document security, and I simply could not overcome my fear of someone changing something I did not want changed. In truth, though, my concerns are probably overblown, as the only people who can change things are registered Wikia users and all editing of a page is tracked. If  a person abuses the editing privilege, Wikia can and does rein them in. Still, I just cannot get past that problem. However, for a non-technical user, Wikia is a good platform. It is free, easy, and powerful.

In the end I chose TikiWiki, which is significantly more flexible and powerful than Wikia, but is not as easy to use. First, you need a place to host it, which Wikia provides. It is possible the provider you use will allow you to run TikiWiki on your existing website, like my provider (www.metapros.net) does. Your website host will be able to tell you what’s involved in adding TikiWiki to your existing page. If not, then you will want to find a good provider that includes TikiWiki in its basic package, like mine does.

Before you install TikiWiki, though, you will want to seriously think about what domain name you want to use. Most of you probably know what I mean by the term domain, but just in case, the domain is the top level you see when you look at a website, such as, www.baen.com. Wikia provides the top-level domain name for you. In my case it was shijuren.wikia.com. For TikiWiki, though, you must do that yourself, meaning a little extra work but also a much wider set of choices. My wiki actually has two top-level domain names, www.robhowell.org/shijuren and www.shijuren.org. Both lead to the same place.

It is possible to change your domain at a later date, but that always has a ton of headaches. You have to pay for both and put a redirect at the old one, not to mention dealing with all publicity materials printed with the wrong address. As stupid as it sounds, spending time picking the right domain name before setting any website up makes a difference. I chose the domains I did because I am not a particularly well-known author and I wanted to advertise my name as well as the world, but I also knew I wanted to claim shijuren.org anyway, so I had my provider claim both and tie the two together. Once you have some ideas, your provider should have a way to check and see if the domain you want is available.

TikiWiki, once you have installed it, is incredibly feature rich and comes with about twenty different themes that are basically usable out of the box. As mentioned, I have been a website administrator for a long time, so I was able to personalize my wiki using CSS files. This is not necessary, though, but I am a whiny, picky sot who has to have things just so.

The biggest advantage to TikiWiki is that it is extremely customizable. You can add all of the things you could on Wikia, along with a variety of others. I wanted a forum and comments for me to interact with readers. Had I gone with TikiWiki from the start I would have used it as my blog engine instead of WordPress, and I still might convert to it, though I am contemplating using the TikiWiki blog function as a way to put out serial fiction in my world.

It lets me set up user groups, allowing me to have registered users that can do some things but not edit wiki pages, create admin users that can do anything, or assign everything in between. You also have absolute control over what anonymous users can and cannot do.

TikiWiki is also much more customizable in terms of page layout, which let me put more things on the page. Registered users get a sidebar that lists the pages that have changed since the last time they logged in. Want to know what I am working on? Check out the new pages to see what people and places I have added recently.

The side columns also include a search bar, a list of random articles, a menu area that links to the forums, my blog, and the page on Amazon resulting from the search of “shijuren,” meaning it will show every book I have published in that world without me having to change anything. There is a calendar of my appearances. There is also an expandable category tree. All this in the sidebars, with the main content in the center.

I took full advantage of my web skills, yes, but the vast majority of editing TikiWiki is like Word or any other editor if you show the normally hidden formatting symbols. It has a customizable toolbar with bold, italics, and that sort of thing. Adding links is easy, you highlight the word or words you want to connect, click one of the toolbar buttons, and fill in the page you want the reference to link to. If you have already created the target, it will hunt for it. If you have not, it will put it on the final screen with a “?” set up as a link to create that target. Once you create the target, every page you have already put that target link on will automatically now go to the new page.

My suggestion, by the way, when you are creating pages is to create all the target links to every possible thing you think you might want to target. You can search for words and re-edit the page to add the targets later, but I find it is more efficient to create all the target links during the page’s initial creation because while it will appear as a “?” link until it is created, it will all connect once you get around to creating that missing page.

Links, by the way, are case-sensitive, so you can spend fifteen frustrating minutes trying to figure out why the $^&$!# thing is not linking before realizing you did not capitalize something. Or you did capitalize and did not mean to. Ask me how I know. Since it is almost impossible to remember what you have capitalized or not, plan a standard set of rules. In my case, I never use “The” to start a page title (except in one peculiar case), I do not capitalize vocabulary words from other languages, and I do capitalize people, places, and everything else.

Also plan for your category structure from the start. I decided I wanted five top-level categories. One is for people, subdivided into the country or region, and then sometimes subdivided again for rulers, nobles, or whatever seems useful. These subdivisions can be added at any time, but I built a plan for how they will go so that when I do add them later, they slot into place easily. I have a second category for places, which is again subdivided by region or country. I have a third category for language, because I like to sprinkle in different words to add flavor to my writing. I subdivided by language, which is not necessarily the same as the regions. I have a separate category for artwork. Finally, I have a category for the world, which includes subcategories for Magic, Gods, and Food. As I create world-building myths or talk about the physics underlying my magic, I will add those here. Should I wish to reorganize these in the future, I can, but this seems to be smooth and easy for now.

I settled into a bare writing style that is fairly dry and pedantic, but is chock full links. Most cities in the wiki start with something like: Tarnovo is an important trade city in ((Irtysh Oblast|Irtysh)) ((oblast|Oblast)), ((Matriarchate of Periaslavl|Matriarchate of Periaslavl)). It lies along the ((Yenesei River|Yenesei River)) on the border between Periaslavl and the ((The Kreisens|Kreisens)). The ((boyar|boyar)) in charge of the city is ((Irakliy Iraklivich|Irakliy Iraklivich)). I actually cut and pasted the code, so you can see what it looks like. The (( | )) construct is the link, and the first part is the target and the second is what is displayed on the final page. These do not have to match, as you can see by the way I link to Irtysh Oblast, linking to the actual oblast with “Irtysh” and then linking separately to the generic term “oblast.”

These pages are capable of holding anything I can think of to make them better. Some have a pronunciation guide. I plan to have an artist create images for the runes some of my magicians use and their entry will have that image. I intend to put images of people and places as those are made. I plan on putting recipes for most of the food I talk about in my stories, because most of the food I talk about are actual traditional recipes of one culture or another.

One of my favorite additions is a section entitled “From the Books,” where I cut and paste a small snippet about the entry directly from the novels. This lets me put in relevant things like hair color, personality, or other details both to help me to remember things but also to provide tidbits to readers. I hope and suspect that as I gain a larger following readers will look for those snippets from the new books, as I often create the page as I’m writing the novel, plus I add another link to the book’s Amazon page.

Something I did not expect was how stimulating the wiki has been to my world-building. Some entries call for other entries, which makes me create them, and I have come up with a bunch of story ideas along the way as I build these entries.

Furthermore, I am sure that I have not yet fully explored my wiki’s potential. Many of you, I am sure, will see things I have missed. No wiki is ever complete. It is the task Sisyphus would be assigned were he punished now. While that can be frustrating, I have found that this task keeps pushing me to find ways to help my readers.

32 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, PROMOTION

32 responses to “Guest Post: Creating a Wiki

  1. Draven

    and every Wikia i see is so chock full of flash ads that you can’t do a proper wikiwander.

    • I actually didn’t really notice that as much because I have Flash turned off. But since a Wikiwander is what I want my readers to be able to do, that’s a huge point.

      • Draven

        yup, its something to consider. beyond two tabs or so, wikia becomes a laggy hell. Something you should QA…

        • I have not noticed that with TikiWiki and I usually have 4-5 tabs open when I’m writing. Another reason I’m glad I went the way I did 🙂

  2. Laura M

    Very cool post, Rob. Thanks!

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Wikis are spammer targets. I thought I had Wikia locked down, but the spammers knew weaknesses that I didn’t. When I gave up and shut the thing down, it had 10,000 spam pages. If TikiWiki is more secure than this, I may have to try again.

    One question: if you’re using the wiki both for your own notes and for readers to explore, how do you handle secrets that you need to remember, but readers don’t know yet? Or even just spoilers that some readers don’t know yet?

    • The spoiler thing is an issue, and it’s something I did not plan for well. My personal solution is to make every entry written from the start of 1710 MG, which is about when all of my novels start. I will create a separate entry for things that happen in the book with spoilers related to that book.

      For example, Edward Aethelredson’s entry will have include all of his notes up to 1710. Then there will be a link: “Edward after A Lake Most Deep,” and so on for each book. If a reader wants to get spoilers, they can find them and choose to read them as they wish, but the basic information will be available without spoilers.

      Since I did not plan well, I am having to go back and make sure I haven’t put in spoilers in the main page, and add them as needed in later sections.

      As for world-building notes. Yes, there are some hidden things I’m keeping close to my vest. For now, I’m not putting that information anywhere except my head, in part because how I use it is unformed (I’m a pantser). I believe I can lock down some wiki pages that only I can use based on user rights.

      My experience with spammers is much the same as yours, so I set the users up to require approval to create. I don’t like this step, but what can you do. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to approve users, even with my phone. In the long term, I have a couple of people who have volunteered to serve as moderators. Anonymous users, by the way, can read most things, but cannot comment or post on the forums.

      Great questions, and ones I contemplated adding, but the post was long enough as was.

      • That’s the beauty of the comment section on here – you can learn a lot. The MGC commentors are great that way.

        • Absolutely, and there is no doubt I have things to learn about the wiki as it expands. It’s still fairly new, with me starting the process in February, switching from Wikipedia in late March, and taking most of April to shape.

          Most of the entries are from the new book, I Am a Wondrous Thing, as I added them while I’ve been writing it. Over the summer I’ll be catching up on the first two as I write the next Edward book, which will be called Where Now the Rider.

          But it will continue to adapt as better ideas come around. I knew it would from the start.

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          No kidding. I learn as much from the commenters as the posters.

      • Draven

        *wonders if he can run a wiki locally*

        • Take a look at wikidpad http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net

          Recommended by someone on Writing Excuses. Might have been Brandon Sanderson?

          • Draven

            cool, cause this reworking and filing the serial numbers off has become a bit more world-buildy than i thought

          • Reality Observer

            I took a look at that a while ago – if you really want a local wiki, my take is that it would be a good choice (although there is a fairly steep learning curve).

            Like Rob, I’m a web developer – but decided against the extra complexity when I started building. I’ve been getting along fine with just hyperlinks in Word. So far; my mileage may vary as time goes on…

            • There are many paths to the same end. I have used Word exactly as you do, and will take that stuff and add it to the wiki.

              However, I really wanted to create something that would be easily available for my readers and I really really hate the code Word creates for websites.

              • Reality Observer

                Took a look at the HTML churned out by Word one time. Finally realized that flies really don’t taste all that good; closed my mouth and closed the screen window…

                Word is… for Word documents. (Well, I do use a third party add-on to generate a PDF when I need one. Someone who really knows Postscript would probably have a stroke looking at the internals of that, but I can fortunately stay blissfully ignorant.)

                • LOL. I’m right there with you. I know enough of the science to know that sometimes I’d rather let some of it stay sufficiently advanced to remain magic.

                  Magic, I can appreciate and enjoy. Some of this science? Not so much 🙂

  4. Susan Howell

    Even though I have a long way to go before creating my own wiki, I now see how I could get one going and how to avoid some pitfalls you already encountered. Thank you for this well written, comprehensive blog.

  5. Thanks; this was a really interesting read and gave me a glimpse into the concepts behind wiki management.

  6. Thank you. The wiki idea is not for everyone, but for a guy like me, who loves loves loves worldbuilding, it’s a fun exercise all on its own.

    In fact, I’m really looking forward to fall this year. Me on my comfy chair. NFL on TV. Laptop on my lap. Grilled meat and veggies. Me creating and building history in Shijuren that I may never use but will be fun to write. Sweetie on the couch knitting and rolling her eyes at my lazy geekiness.

    See the Rob in his natural habitat 🙂

  7. karllembke

    I was using TiddlyWiki for my AD&D gaming world, but it started acting up when I moved to Windows 7. It was quite nice to be able to link articles to each other: seven baronies in the kingdom, a multitude of cities in each barony, links to prominent characters in each area, etc.
    I will take a look at WikidPad.

    By the way, a peeve I’ve had, reading through fiction:

    Wikia can and does reign them in

    That’s “rein in”. Like what you use to control a horse, not what a king does.
    (Another usage I’ve been tripping over is authors who write, for example, about a “hoard” of warriors overrunning a position. That’s why I’ve been thinking of hanging out a “proofreader” shingle.)

    • You’re absolutely correct, and had I edited this I would have seen that. It bothers me too, but sometimes fingers type what they type. At least you didn’t point out the missed words I saw once it was posted 🙂

      • karllembke

        At least you do edit. (Although the person who, on the first page of his novel, had the sun “peaking” over the mountains said that seven pairs of eyes before mine had missed that.)

    • I’ll go in and edit it. Blog posts are, fortunately, not held to the same elevation as books are. Largely because they are volunteer work and deeply appreciated for that.

    • karllembke

      Last night, I pulled up the TiddlyWiki “tiddler” for my AD&D world and found that its functionality had returned. (Maybe it was just a matter of waiting for the right upgrade to Javascript to come through.) So now I’ll suggest it’s worth a look.

      It’s web page based, so the entire wiki is contained in an HTML file. You download an empty tiddler, open it up, and start making changes. (I have an empty tiddler saved for use with wikis on other topics.)

  8. Pingback: The Wiki | Howell's Howls