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.
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.