Keeping Track

One of the difficulties writers face, especially when they have several series of books going at one time, is keeping track of everything. Some writers manage to keep everything straight in their heads. Others have complex story bibles that have almost as much information in them as their novels do. Still others have handwritten notes scattered around their work area — and who knows where else. Then there are those who stop writing when they get to something they can’t remember and go looking for the answer in earlier works. As with the writing process, there is no one true way to keep track of your characters, different plot points, etc. The key is finding one that works for you.

And that is something I’ve been trying to find for the last couple of years. I’ve looked at examples of story bibles and, I’ll be honest, most of them take more work than I want to do. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve seen character sheets that have more than 100 questions you are supposed to answer about every major and important character in your book. Sorry, but nope. If I have to do that, I’m not going to do it. Or, if I do, I’m going to be too tired of the character to write them.

I’ve had friends tell me I need to just work out an Excel spreadsheet and fill in the blanks. Well, the first problem with that is I don’t like Excel. I can use it but I don’t want to have to unless I’m figuring out my budget or my expenses.  Besides, it also means coming up with a format that I not only like but that is easy to navigate. Using it with my writing is, well, too much like work. So, nope, not gonna happen.

Other suggestions have been to find a fan who would be willing to go through my books and build the “bible” for me. I’ve done that before — waves at Sarah — and there’s a problem. The author has to be able to tell the volunteer the format she wants or it isn’t going to work. After all, what seems totally reasonable and logical to one person won’t necessarily appear that way to another. Also, the information I might think important to be included might not seem so obvious to the person doing the compilation for me.

So, when a writer friend of mine, Mackay Chandler, posted on his FB wall last week that he was looking for recommendations for programs to build his story bible, I sat up and took note. For one, I figure Mackay wouldn’t want to spend any more time than I would learning a program. For another, I respect Mac as a writer and was curious to see what he wound up selecting.

Several f0lks recommended he do a wiki. I’ll admit, my reaction to that was skepticism. I wanted a program that I could host on my laptop, not on someone else’s online servers. I didn’t want to have to rely on being online to access the bible. Nor did I want to trust anyone else’s hardware to host my work. Still, a wiki did intrigue me but not as long as it was online only.

Someone, and it might have been O’Mike, recommended Zim Desktop Wiki. Based on some very preliminary thoughts on the program Mac had, I went ahead and downloaded it for myself. I spent most of Monday playing around with it and, much to my surprise, I not only like it but have found it easy to set up so it makes sense to me.

The first series I’m using it with is Nocturnal Lives. The decision was sort of a no-brainer since Nocturnal Rebellion is the current work-in-progress. The series consists of four novels and a novella and, I’ll be honest, I don’t remember all the character names and descriptions. So I needed something to keep me from having a manuscript filled with [ ] which is my shorthand to go look something up.

The first thing I needed to do is decide what my basic setup for the wiki would be. After some trial and error, I came up with a pretty basic setup. There is a homepage, a section for the novels, a section for the novella, one for characters and one for special terms.

Here’s a shot of the homepage. Note, all images can be clicked on and they will open up in larger format.

As you can see, there are live links on the page that will carry me to the pages. The navigation pane at the left of the page can be opened up as well and used to go to any of the pages or sub-pages.

For the novels, I set up a section that lists each of the novels. They, in turn, have their own page and sub-pages. When they are finished, the main page for the novels will include the cover image and blurb, along with order links, publication date and other related data. Here’s what I have so far.

For Nocturnal Origins, here is the preliminary page. You’ll note I have links to two sub-pages. The first is locations. This will open to another page that will then link to individual pages where I describe the different locations in this book, importance to the story, etc. The second is “manuscript”. After some thought, I decided I wanted the actual text of the book included in the wiki so I could check back and forth as needed. So, under manuscript, each chapter has its own subpage.

Here is an example of one of the location pages. It describes the basics of Mac’s house (up to Chapt. 10 where I stopped for the day yesterday).

Then here is an example of a character sub-page, again, not complete. You will see some links are present and there are others that need to be put in. I’ll go back and do that over the next few days as I finish setting up the wiki.

Finally, here’s a picture of the first page of the book. The links will take me either to a character page or location page.

This program is extremely simple to use, fairly intuitive. The manual is decent but there are some good videos on youtube as well as third-party sites with how-to’s on them. I’ve spent more time trying to determine how I want the wiki set up than anything else. You can export the wiki, or notebook, as an html file, so you have multi-platform use if you want to play with it that way. You can also then upload to your own site if that’s important to you.

Is this the file for you? I don’t know. That’s a question only you can answer. But, for me and for what I need, it works.

Oh, yeah, the other thing I need to do is a bit of promo. Yeah, yeah, I know. You didn’t come expecting an ad. I can’t help it. I’ve got a book coming out tomorrow — and it is available for pre-order now.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.


  1. Right now I am in the “Notebook” phase. Great for portability and quick scribbles. Was wondering what maybe a good step. Something to keep in mind for after.

    1. That’s what I would do. The problem came when I would lose the notes I jotted down with full intention of transferring them to my notebook but never did. I like this particular program, at least so far, because it can be exported as an html file which means it can be accessed by any OS. If it continues working — and I think it will. The key will be taking the several days necessary to load all the data in — then I will have everything, including copies of each title in the series, at my fingertips. It will be searchable as well. That will save me a lot of time in the future.

  2. I’ve been scribbling notes – and losing them again. I’d done some preliminary research, but like you, was put off by the amount of work I’d have to put in. I’ll check this out, thanks!

    1. Cedar, the amount of work is why turned me off a lot of programs I’ve looked at. Well, that and price. This is free and, once I figured out the format I wanted to use, it’s been simple. I go to the current chapter I’m working on — which is included in the wiki — scan until I see something I want to link to or note, highlight the information and create the link, then follow the link to that page and add the information. That gives the link from the original text to the sub-page, be it a character sheet, setting, sheet or whatever. On that sub-page, you can follow the linkback to a particular page (or chapter) by clicking the appropriate icon on the bottom right corner of the sub-page. Now, if only I didn’t have to read my own work. VBEG

  3. Another similar system I’ve seen recommended is wikidpad which basically provides you with a wiki on your own system. I tried it a while ago, and it looked usable, but did require some understanding of wikis to get much done. Might be another alternative. Hum, looks as if they’ve added a spell checker since I looked last.

      1. Looks as if Zim has more features. wikidpad is pretty plain wiki, which some folks swear by and others just swear at. I know that one thing that iRriTates me is being told to use CamelWords as links…

        And, as usual, I’d suggest that if it works for you, stick with it!

  4. AWESOME…have been having the exact same issues, just keeping up with the stuff Ive scribbled and cobbled together for my own book. Whenever I feel like I have to backtrack is when I start the slide to procrastination and waffling. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Mary, that is exactly what I found myself doing. I finally got to the point where I realized I was spending hours going through notes and earlier books in a series to find information just to finish edits on the last several books I’ve written. It got to the point where I needed to do something and, hopefully, something I wouldn’t lose more than a few days on in the set up and data entry.

      I love using a wiki-style program because you can adapt it to include whatever information you want and you can be as detailed or as general as you want. For this particular series, I don’t have to worry a lot about world-building, etc., notes because it is based on current day Dallas. I live in the area and can simply drive where I need to go to check something out. But I do need a character breakdown, basic plot points, location details (like how I set up houses, apartments, etc) and that sort of thing.

      I also like being able to have the entire series included in the bible, including the actual text of the books. Ease of set-up and a minimal learning curve was also a requirement.

  5. The wiki sounds cool. I’m really interested so I have all these questions:

    Can you explain a bit about the manuscript part – do you see yourself typing your story in there directly, or into a word processor then – copying it in or attaching the files?

    Also, since I am an ignoramus about publishingebooks – lets say you’ve got your novel all in the wiki and you export it as HTML – would it be pretty easy to convert it to book format at that point?

    1. Let’s see. No, I’m not going to use the interface to write in. What I’m doing now is a simple copy and paste. One chapter pasted into a single sub-page. When I start working on the next book in the series, I will simply add information to the wiki as needed and, once the book is finished and edited, add it to sub-pages.

      As for exporting it and converting for e-book, I know with Zim you can choose to export certain pages instead of the entire document. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for your e-book file. For one, the wiki isn’t really set up to be a word processing program. For another, it doesn’t offer the functionality and options Word or a similar program does, options you want for e-books. So, unless you are fluent in html coding and want to tackle it that way, I wouldn’t consider it as an e-book formatter.

  6. What kind of backup are you using on your computer? I would hate to lose all the background work you talk about.

    1. I backup my work several ways. For my writing, I will not only email the latest version (working version) to myself every day or so. I also save to Dropbox and iCloud (this latter if I am working on my Macbook Air). For writing and everything else, I do weekly backups to an external hd. Actually, to be completely honest about it, I’m paranoid, so there is one external HD for everything that’s on the laptop and then another that is nothing but writing backups.

        1. Right now, only the emailed backups and those to Dropbox and iCloud. However, the external HDs are located in a place where they can be grabbed, along with the laptop and a couple of other things, very quickly in case I need to make a fast exit from the house.

          1. I keep one set of backups on a thumbdrive on a keychain that never leaves my pocket. (It’s with my housekeys – I keep my car keys on separate rings).

            1. That’s what I do for backup. I have multiple hard drive backups on my Big Box, I have a Synology NAS backup, I have about 4 thumb drives plugged in, and one on my keychain. I update regularly. I also have a little cheapo tablet PC in my go-bag, I keep that updated too.

              Loose thumb drives are very easily lost. Pro tip.

              An issue for me at the beginning was keeping track of edits. I settled on a numerical progression of “title_number_letter” there number is the progress update for the day and letter is how many times I’ve combed through it looking for mistakes.

              Something else I’ve been doing lately is keeping the latest iteration of all the books on my Kobo. Using Caliber it is trivial to make an e-book version, and seeing it in a different format makes mistakes pop out better.

              As far as writing the book and keeping track of who did what, I seem to be able to keep the books in my mind. There’s no outline, just a starting condition, a desired end condition (they lived happily ever after… until the next pike of horse poo fell down the chute onto the fan, tune in next week) and a cast of characters. I hand them the problem, and they solve it.

              Sometimes between one book and another I have to go back and see who said that thing I’m thinking of. Then I can cut/paste and move on nicely.

              Writing things in notebooks is something I stopped doing altogether. With the advent of the cell phone, the iPad, the super cheap computer, I find it advantageous to type everything. It makes life easy for me, because then I can paste a note directly into the book and clean it up.

              1. Right now I am using a notebook for scribbling to be honest. I can write (badly) faster than I can type into a tablet or phone. When I can I transpose what I have scribbled into a separate document until it’s needed elsewhere. Working for now, will have to work on better methods as I go. This Zim program I think will help immensely.

                1. One nice thing about writing in a notebook is that they can’t crash and lose all your work. ~:)

  7. I downloaded last night and spent an hour playing with it. I like your format ideas so will probably steal them. Great idea for backup work as well.

    1. Steal away. Now that I am further into the first book of the series, I am seeing some refinements I need to do that will help with later books in the series. But, for the initial working format, it does well. The rest is tweaking that can come later.

  8. Thank you very much for taking the time to look into this and tell the rest of us about this. I’m definitely going to look into this.
    Currently I just use doc files, and either write notes or copy and paste out of the current work into the files (I have one for characters and one for plot). As some of my series are getting a bit long (starting #8 in one series) it is starting to get hard to keep track of all the notes and references.
    The ability to cross link could be quite useful.

  9. Thanks you. You understand how to use it much better than me. I will be following your format pretty much but I need lists and links for a couple things like ship names.
    Do I get from this you can export the whole thing as an HTML file to save it in Dropbox?

    1. Mackey, I have realized I need a couple of other lists that I’ll pull together and do backlinks after I get the first book’s entries done. I don’t think it will take more than another half hour or so once I get to that post.

      As for the export and save, I believe so. I just did a full export as an html file onto my desktop. I’ll be pulling it over to my external hd later this afternoon. I don’t see why it couldn’t be uploaded to dropbox or something similar.

  10. My big problem isn’t just keeping track: it’s that several of my Secondary Worlds trace back thirty and forty years, with stuff from when I was in jr. high and high school there in the foundations. Things that create awkward problems when I try to write in certain parts of those worlds: just a few days ago, I pulled out a space opera that I originally started way back when I was a freshman in college, thinking it’d be easy to write because it’s relatively lightweight pulpish adventure. But as I was reading the notes, I discovered there were whole swaths of stuff that I simply could no longer suspend disbelief for. So I’ve got the problem of trying to see if I can get back into my 19-year-old mind and figure out what I was seeing but not understanding, or if I’m going to have to simply throw most of it out and start afresh.

    I’m really starting to feel sympathetic to Tolkien’s struggles to bring the Silmarillion into some kind of publishable format after The Lord of the Rings made it possible, and his intense dissatisfaction with so many of the ideas he’d dashed off in those first notebooks, charming but too whimsical for the more solid and grounded world he’d portrayed in LOTR.

  11. “Anything free is worth what you pay for it.” — Robert A. Heinlein

    “If you’re lucky.” — Martin L. Shoemaker

    If it’s free, what’s their revenue model? Is it supported? Is it secure?

    Not to be cynical, but… No, wait, yes I’m cynical when it comes to the security of my machine.

    1. Martin,
      There’s tons of freeware that’s safe. Normally it is “I have a credit writing software.” The other side of it is when companies buy it they still pay. No malicious intent. We knew two guys who were millionaires from doing freeware.
      Also, Adobe is now basically malware. I doubt this can be worse. But if it is, I’m sure you can find websites to substantiate that.

  12. I’ve found that every novel needs its lists. Always a character one. Then I have to discover, the hard way, which other lists are needed and go back and get the earlier information into it.

    1. Mary, that is why I’m doing it the way I am. The overall wiki is for the series. Each novel has its own sections. Characters, however, are cross-novel, so they have their own section(s). What I’ve discovered already is that I need to break those lists down even more to show, for ex, which characters are cops and what divisions they’re assigned to and how that changes over the course of the series.

    1. Yeah, that was my model. Then I couldn’t find all my notes. Or I couldn’t find the note I wanted amidst all the other notes. Whimper.

  13. UPDATE:

    I’ve used the program for about 6 – 8 hours now and have pretty much finished inputting data from the first book in the series. Much of that time was spent figuring out the base format style (what pages and subpages, how I wanted to set the pages up, etc). The basic style works but, as the data grows, I’m seeing I need to add more sub-page lists. I figure that will take another half hour or so to do because the data will already be entered. It will be just a matter of making the list page/sub-page.

    My one complaint is that there are times when the program will crash without warning. Fortunately, it doesn’t lose data when it does (at least not so far). I do save fairly often. The oddity when this happens is that, on restart, the program will often say it can’t find the page. But on the next attempt to open, it will go straight to where I was working at the time of the crash. Not optimal but workable.

  14. I’m trying it now, (wanted to do it on a weekend, when if I’m pissed, it doesn’t affect my 9-5) Still learning it, but yes this is better than what I had before.

    1. I’ve spent enough time with it to know that it is going to work as I want it to. Now for the next question. My work laptop has to be sent in for warranty work. So we will see how the data transfers from one computer to another. Fingers crossed

Comments are closed.