Three writing tools I should have been using long ago. No. 2

Part 2 – The Novel World Guidebook (for the author).

I like this one, but it’s wasn’t until I started contemplating writing a series that I began to see the importance of keeping copious notes on the world of characters and history I was making. Together, in a reference collection.

2. The Novel World lexicon, encyclopaedia, bible, compendium, guidebook, what-have-you

Did you know that the plural of data is data? So when you have multiple information points you would technically have to refer to them as “these data” not “this data”. In this way, I think of my data as sheep. That’s not such a bad thing. I come from a country of 4 million people and 66 million sheep. Sheep are a good thing.

So, writers have a lot of these data coming out of our pores, and we try to mop them up in various data collections.

Writers call these collections by various names – a bible, reference guide, lexicon, or guide book. Coming from the software industry, I tend to simply think of this as data, files, or perhaps technical files – they are the maps, systems, guidelines, and reference specifications that sit behind the story.

JK Rowling famously had problems over somebody else putting together such a guide to the Harry Potter world, although there still remain many lexicons and HP com’s and fan-sourced wikis out on the net, delving into the characters and history of the Potter world. (And now, she has Pottermore).

Which brings up another side of gathering together the data as an organised collection – although writers have to do a lot around the background of their characters and settings, much of this remains just that – background. Using all the glorious facts we’ve found out or made up would be too much exposition within the story, but potentially some of this could be offered as bonus material for the platform. Family trees, in particular, are often offered on author websites as promotional bonuses for readers. High Realm Fantasy can provide world maps (you can actually purchase cartography software to create these now), often as an additional image within the book. Many fantasy books or series in particular now offer compendiums as a separate bonus book after the series is published.

I haven’t named my own world collection as yet, it sits as a series of documents in various formats: from timelines, floor plans (I use a graphical tool for those such as Visio), setting street maps (my blessings upon Google for those), mindmaps, full family (and friend) relationship trees (actually created in a family heritage program), organisational structures (again, with the graphical tools), text notes and templates.

Add to that character and setting profiles, with images. Lots of images. I search the web and magazines for images of people for my major characters and settings. If I happen to work something out on a mobile app, and can’t export it over as text or PDF, then I take screenshots. Yeah, lots of screenshots, too.

I used to consider world building a real joy. It seemed part of the best of writing, say sci-fi or fantasy. I loved to spend a fortune of time on creating the politics, society and perhaps even a new language for my new world.

But I seldom saw the point for my more contemporary writing projects…

…until I started thinking about a series.

Now, I need to know exactly when, where and how a new character pops up, in case I don’t kill them off and they become important in a future project, or because they may be referenced elsewhere.

Drawing out their relationships and links also can be important even within the one work. I take notes as I go, of all the miscellaneous and seemingly unimportant bit-players I put in my stories, noting where they make their appearance, their names and anything else useful.

This helps when I have to name a new character also – my mind tends to come up with a small range of surnames – there’s a very good chance that I may accidentally reuse a name at some point. The questionable mortuary technician in Liverpool U.K. that I’ve just written into a short fiction piece might turn up accidentally as a falandering husband now turned dead body in Sydney Australia in my next piece. (Sometimes that’s okay – I know several people from different places in RL who share the same name, most of us do, so maybe our main characters might encounter the same thing in FL one day).

Writing software such as Scrivener, Writeway and others let you copy over character and setting profiles between projects. Many let writers import in other documents – I create mindmaps and timelines in other apps, but import them into my projects as either images or PDF files.

As with physical research, I also can sometimes simply draw out or write out ideas, which I then scan in as images or PDFs. (See Part 1 for more on scanning in documents or notes).

As I build the world, I add to the relevant character profiles, and add in the additional documents. These are then to go into a main world project, and when I do start a new project, I can take a copy of the relevant files over into a fresh project. Changes and additions will eventually go back into the base project, the guide. My world project is the guide. A guide for the writer.

Although I’m all electronic, other writers like to keep a large physical file / binder containing all this – sorry, these data. Others use index cards. (I do too, at least the electronic versions, some on my mobile).

I even know of one writer who has put his own world data onto a wiki, which makes sense as it’s accessible to him from anywhere with browser access.

There are plenty of templates to download for elements like character profiles, and several good world building how-tos for the sci-fi or fantasy writer where things such as environment, culture and even language might be a consideration. (I would recommend looking up the Science Fiction Writers of America website or the World Building Clinics of Holly Lisle for a start).

And Pip Hunn, in this 2010 article – Making a Writing Bible: An Essential Tool for Story Writers, suggests a very thorough organisation method which includes using Word to create a fully TOC and indexed book.

I didn’t read that post back then, or I might have taken greater care in the initial preparation for the collecting of all my own files. There are various options around my somewhat higglety-pigglety organisation at the moment, but this is one tool of value that I will take forward as a learning lesson.

Writer’s guides to their worlds are perhaps some of the most pleasurable tasks for a writer. I certainly think so. There is a risk that a writer could go over the top with some of this stuff (holds her hand up) to the detriment of actually writing the story, but having a good base setup to hold the information as we do write out our drafts is a simple yet effective tool for the future.

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