How do you keep track of your novel's inner world...?

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May 5, 2018
When I wrote my first two children's novels, I devised a plan, which I referred to and used to keep tabs on the details of my novels' world. The books are short (sub 18K wordcounts) with larger-than-life characters and places which are relatively easy to remember. So that worked fine.

Now I'm writing a novel with a projected 60K word count and a great many more characters, places and itinerant details.

I quickly got fed up of scrolling up and down the MS to double-check the surname of a particular minor character, or what street name I'd given etc. so I made a list of People / Places / Things on a separate Word .doc and spent a useful half-hour skimming through and compiling everything, so the information was available at a glance.

In another thread, @RK Capps mentioned she uses a spreadsheet to keep track of her characters etc. and I recall a few months back other Litopians mentioning software they use for the same thing (especially useful when writing a series, I imagine). Some people love the classic corkboard/sticky notes/scribbles on a sheet of paper, but I don't have the luxury of a desk with a convenient wall for that.


I'm keen to refine my rather crude method and find out how the rest of you approach this issue.

@RK Capps please can you give me more details about how you organise your spreadsheet? (I like spreadsheets. I know, I know...) :)

...and anyone else, please share your own preferred method, how long it takes, how much faff (or otherwise) is involved and anything else that would shed light on my organisational darkness.

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I've expanded on the method JK Rowling used for HP. (Here's the link I started with). What We Can Learn from J.K. Rowling's Series Grid | Better Novel Project

I have a heading for the plot/subplot thread going horizontal across my spreadsheet, then vertically, I list the main Save the Cat beats (as I start) then as I write I change them into headings for the scenes I've created within Scrivener. Did I mention? I couldn't manage as much as I do without Scrivener.

That part is just like JK Rowling. But, in addition, I also add character arcs.

When I've typed 'the end', I rely heavily on Scrivener and this Spreadsheet. For example, if one of my spreadsheet subplot headings is 'amulet', I go to Scrivener and in its 'search' field, I type 'amulet'. Suddenly, I can only see the scenes that contain the word 'amulet' and every word 'amulet' is highlighted in bright yellow, so even within scenes, it's easy to locate where I have referred to it. And I do that for every horizontal heading.

Then I organise my screen so I see that part of the spreadsheet and part of Scrivener. I go through the spreadsheet and check what is happening in Scrivener is consistent and each scene progresses and flows for that subplot. In fact, I use the example of 'amulet' because it was my editor who noticed something out of kilter with the amulet in my book. I can't recall what it was (because the above method fixed the plot hole).

Of course, I must be computer-orientated because I can't physically write (well, I can, but I need someone to hold the paper still and even then I write like a 5 year old. Having someone stand over your shoulder isn't conducive to creativity. I'm a little bit better than this now: My first attempt to write pre-stroke).

What do you all do?
I'm quite boring, I'm afraid; I just have a word doc plan with sections for characters, setting, plot etc and update them as I go along.

It keeps it simple and it works for me. However, my current novel is set in the real world (with a few minor tweaks) so it's easier for me to keep track of things. If I was writing a fantasy novel with imagined elements I'd probably need something more inventive.
I use Scrivener for all of my writing projects. I keep track of all of my characters in the project notes section, and then I add those notes to a Word doc (I keep each book, even when they are series, in separate Scrivener files), so I can refer to it when I work on later books, and to make sure I'm not using the same names over multiple books that are not in a series or to keep book series consistent.
If you 'win' Nanowrimo, they normally have a deal @KateESal. I got it for free. But if you decide to try, beware, it's a big learning curve. It's very powerful software BUT you can trial it free for a month, go here, Scrivener | Literature & Latte.

I agree it has a learning curve, for certain. I doubt I use all of the features available, and Mac has much more than the version for Windows from my understanding. However, the trial is really good because it counts the days used, not continuous days. So, if you use it one day and not the next, the third day of having it only counts as day 2 of the trial. I like that. :)
I'm very tempted, I must say. I recently got a wee bit of birthday money, so this could be my treat. :)

I think I'll download the trial and check it out.

(meanwhile, I'm still interested to hear how you all manage this!)
It’s a bit old school but for my first book - that had a lot of characters and sub-plots - I got a bunch of different coloured cue cards, and then wrote out the book on them with a different colour for each character etc.

It was great in that it got me away from my laptop to work on the book for a while (I could deal them out across the floor and almost see it) and I could also swap cards around to help build general momentum without losing track of where characters were, what they were doing and where they had to be next. And it cost about a pound
Scrivener fan here - I have a character file for each POV character, and one file for all the secondary characters. Each POV character file has a separate beat sheet and story arc, motivations and ambitions and how they link to the main character. This single file usually ends up two pages, but contains all the relevant info for only that one char.
I don't use all the bits of Scrivener I could use, but having the sidebars makes it easy to see the main 'pieces' and I add to it as I go. It means one click to get the info, then one click back to where I was.
Haven't been lost since I figured it out, but it did take a while (the longest time to figure out how to create a new scene page ...). However, I got the trial period for NaNo, so I gave myself no choice but to learn as I went and not waste too much time fiddling.
And the win gives a code for a good discount.
I'm still learning how to export some things, but it helps me get the story flow going without having to duck out of the moment to find something.
Hey @CageSage, have you tried the split-screen feature? You don't even need with one click, you can have both open. You can toggle between the two, the blue bar at the top of each screen tells you which screen you're working in. The feature scared me until I worked it out. Now I constantly have the split-screen on.
split-screen feature
No. I have the sidebar open all the time with the 'gems' on the project notes that follow me from scene to scene. That's less distracting, and it's only when I need deeper info on the char that I go to the char profile docs.

I know some people love it, and some people like the corkboard feature, but I like a 'clean board' approach, with the main text I'm working on as the feature, and everything else nudged out of the way. Helps with the focus, I suppose.

We're all different, and finding what works best for the way we work is some of the fun ...
I've used a spreadsheet for the most part. I believe you can also save character profiles and various notes within each Scrivener project (I'm not a Scrivener user, so someone else may be able to verify?) YWriter (aka free Scrivener for PC) can also do this last I checked.

Otherwise, there is also world building tools such as this: Worldbuilding and RPG Campaign Management | World Anvil. There are a couple of others similar to it, but this is the one that sprang to mind. It's probably most useful for fantasy and sf with second world settings though. I've also heard some authors say they build their own wikis for their series—this seems like a lot of work though, especially when the humble spreadsheet suits my purposes.
I use Scrivener. Character notes for each character, links to web resources and other documents I've used for research, documents on made up cultures, cities, animals, whatever...I love all the options for organising. And best of all, when I start the next book in the series, I can duplicate any of those research and character files I want in the new book, so everything remains consistent between books. Doesn't mean I don't accidentally change things sometimes (you gotta actually LOOK at your notes for them to do any good. LOL!).
LOOK at your notes
Oh, is that what the problem is? I did wonder how things slid by ...
Sometimes, the writing is going so well, the reasons for not stopping are stronger than the reasons for stopping, which is why I use the project notes sidebar (that funny thingy on the right hand side) for all the important bits ... usually.
What's that old saying, if we were perfect ...

And I laughed so hard - it wasn't going to be me to admit to failing to actually look at the notes I've so painstakingly placed in the right places for ease of progress, was it?
My word rate has absolutely shot up since I started using Scrivenor. It took several hours to transfer all my Word .docs over, but once done, I've really hit the accelerator pedal.

There's still loads for me to learn about the various tricks Scrivenor has up its sleeve, but as my narrative becomes more complex and the plot threads weave together, it's proving very useful indeed.

Thanks for the reco, Fellow Writers!
That's awesome! Fantastic to hear :)

One of the tricks I rely heavily on is the search function, especially when I want to follow a specific thread or character. Say I want to follow Joe, I type him in the search field and now only the scenes with Joe are highlighted, PLUS his name is in bright yellow, so I can quickly zero in on WHERE he is in that scene.

When it comes time to compile, the beauty is you can compile to your heart's content, but @Carol Rose has kindly placed the Scrivener tips thread in Wiki, so watching that can help you too. I had a play with it last week and it worked perfectly :)
Holy crap. Look at that those tidy shelves. That wonderfully tidy desk! And that spreadsheet. OMFG. I'm now going to turn off my computer, leave the room with my head down on my chest, try to find the bedroom through the tears in my eyes (I'll feel my way), crawl under the blankets and stay there, feeling totally inadequate for the next few months. At least. :)

Alternatively, if there's a budget version of Scriviner, I might have a look :)
Y-writer is very similar to Scrivener. I think its a free download from memory. One of my local writing group members swears by it. It's only available for PC though.

That feeling:
Don't worry. I investigated a bit ...
That space belongs to someone who has a 'file 13' where all the junk is hidden (maybe a whole room out the back). You can tell that because there is a trunk on the chaise - you don't put that on a chaise unless you have something to hide ... like the real stuff, the scribbles and early tries, the screwed up balls of shredded notepads and pencil-nubs. A chaise in a writer's room has a pillow and something to play music within reach. Not a box.
That picture is the 'before' shot, or the 'pretender' - colour-coded post-its? They only last a week, at most.

Maybe my writing space would look like this if I cleaned up a bit ... but it's three rooms, and the box under the dining table, and the drawers in the spare room, so maybe not.
How about I show off my white-board ... but there's two of them, and one end is rippled and stained with many colours from over-use. How about the movable table-top ... but it's stacked with notebooks with research and sticky notes that no longer stick, and a few of the pencils with less than half a length left, the odd eraser (see, no rubbers here!). And one or two books.

No, that pic is a dream space, not a reality. Not while in work-mode, anyway.
Not possible.
Look closely, there aren't even any marks on the floor from the chair being thrown backwards -- nothing like that at all! The curtains are new, nothing stuck or pinned there, no character photos or collages of faces or places.
It's a fake. Has to be. Even the coffee cup is clean.
My writing space is wherever I open my laptop. Which is why Scrivenor is handy, seeing as you can do a fair bit of virtual organising within it, no need for a wall to display your Post-Its, no need for a big box to hide all the crap in. @RK Capps has a virtual version of that amazing whiteboard in her Excel too, I believe....
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