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Keeping track of it all


So, you have a complex magic system, political system, economic system, plus continents and cities and neighborhoods. And characters major and minor, with appropriate backstories and more.

So what is your favorite tool for keeping track of all this as you progress through your novel?


I like to keep a notebook. Just a standard, college ruled composition notebook or something. I keep character profiles, maps, explanations, really anything you want jotted down about your story for future reference. You can use sticky notes as dividers for sections of your notebook. If you want to be really organized, neat, and maybe put in some drawings and stuff, you can put it all in a binder. I find that to be the most helpful and I've had a lot of fun creating one for a more serious project.


Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
I have 1 big notebook in which i have written most of the important details of my world, including trade routes, simple character lists, history of the main setting etcetera. I also have 2 filled folders. One folder deals with my main world and has smaller world details, maps, drawings of peoples and races and random trivia. The other folder is ideas for worlds that aren't my main one. Finally i have some word documents on my pc and some extensive trivia in my phone that i am too lazy to convert to a pc file.

Overall i am not very organised and much information i haven't even written down yet.
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Developmental editors use a document called a stylesheet, which lists all people and places within the story alphabetically in order of appearance by chapter, and a short summary of each chapter.

They also sketch maps to verify direction and time lapse.

I think it's more flexible for your world to do something similar, but only after completing the manuscript.

If you plan everything out before writing the story you might have to go back and make changes to the central ideas anyway.

Keep it in your noodle and let the editors scribble and doodle. They get paid well regardless of whether your novel sells or not, make them work for it.
I strive for organization and have a notebook set aside for Axis Earth, but as I'm often busy getting lost in the woods or suffering bouts of rage or melancholy, a lot of it is still swirling around my head. Good thing I have an often-inconveniently awesome memory.


For the last novel I did, I have a folder full of notepad documents. The folder consists of 178 KB of text spread over 156 .txt files.
There's also a folder of reference images that take-up 8.5 MB.
I wouldn't recommend this method.

The setting I have now has about five Excel documents (labeled politics/religion, history, culture, people and plot) full of text, charts and images. I find Excel documents are my preferred method of keeping track of information.

So, in short, I keep everything digital.


Myth Weaver
Scrivener for text, then maps in photoshop files, as well as printed for scribbling. The novel I'm currently working on has a ticking clock time element that is demanding a lot of attention and driving me crazy, LOL. Characters extracting knowledge and getting where they need to be on time is proving to be one of the bigger headaches, especially with so many moving cogs that need to fit together. Actually, I will write large chunks in Pages, do my first pass edit, then when breaking it into chapters, I will pull the pieces into Scrivener for organization.

Hand written has mostly gone out the window. Sad but true.
In my youth, I had maps and 'contact cards' those coloured cards around 12x8cm in a little file box, cities in yellow, buildings in green, characters in pink, relationships between people on pale pink, story arcs on white.

Then when I learnt to code, I made up a website to track it all, over the years I found myself spending too much time making the website and not writing the book, but I found two or three other websites that did the same, Obsidian for example, has a decent site space, but I hit their megabyte limit pretty quickly and don't want to pay $50 a year to store my world-build when I can simply store it all on my own PC.

So, now I have a worldbuilder engine, click on a map to zoom in, click on a city to see whats there, click on a building to see who owns it. I have random name generators for shops, owners and the like, and 'pins' for characters in the story, so if I need character A to come meet character B in a location at a set time, I can ping them and the engine will give me a 'minimum' time, which sometimes causes characters to be 'late' where I would have just written them as arriving on time, but now, because they are late, I can write the opinion of the waiting party, how they feel about the situation, "why are they not here yet? are they betraying me as I sit here and drink?" then include their relief when the 'friend/appointment' arrives.

logistics are all taken care of by the engine, which gives me thousands of plot hooks, enough that I need to ignore 99% of them.

If there is any demand for it, I might try to make it user friendly (for now, my friends look at the mess of 'numbers' and say, "how do you even read that?")
For organization, I use Scrivener. I have Aeon Timeline also, but haven't made as much use of it as I ought; there's a steep learning curve.

I have a couple notebooks, really journal-type notebooks, for brainstorming and scribbling notes.


Myth Weaver
Aeon Timeline, thanks for the heads up on that. Might have to check that out, looks better than my current muckety muck system, LOL.


toujours gai, archie
I use Scrivener for my World Reference. That's where I keep information on my various fantasy races, historical notes, the magic system, all that sort of stuff. The things that are outside the confines of a specific novel. It's also where I keep a library of available names, sorted by race.

I keep that in a separate Scrivener project. That way I can have it open, along with my current novel and can hotkey back and forth. I do this mainly in editing mode, not during initial drafts.

Within the specific novel, I have more detailed information, such as character sketches. Those I keep within the novel's project (Scrivener thinks in terms of projects).

I can't draw maps worth pigeon poop, but happily my world is an alternate history world, so I have a whole collection of historical maps I use for reference. And I have a spreadsheet I use as a (clumsy) timeline for the story. I _can_ link to these from inside Scrivener, but I have found it far easier simply to keep a Windows Explorer instance open and just browse to the file I need. Here again, I tend not to consult such resources while I'm writing, as it disrupts whatever pitiful flow I've mustered. It's invaluable, however, when editing.

More generally, the advice given in regard to time management applies here as well. Keep things in one place. Do not keep some on paper, some in the computer. Keeping it all in one place is more important than the features of any particular tool. Pick what works best for you, and be prepared that your first choice is not likely to be the best one. You'll likely try out multiple systems before you choose ("choose" is sometimes a synonym for "the one you had when you stopped trying new ones").
Aeon Timeline, thanks for the heads up on that. Might have to check that out, looks better than my current muckety muck system, LOL.

I recently received a notice that Aeon Timeline 2.0 will be released soon. I believe the current version allows a download of a trial version if you want to check it out. Because I've had it for some time, I won't get a free upgrade to 2.0, but I was offered a 50% discount on a preorder of 2.0. I think that anyone purchasing the older version after a certain date will be given the option to upgrade to 2.0 free; you could check on that if you are thinking of buying it. As of this point, 2.0 is supposed to be released before the end of the year, so you might wait to purchase.

From what you were describing, I think Aeon Timeline could be a major help. The program could also help for tracking epic stories taking place over long periods across a wide world with a large cast of characters. More generally, it provides the ability to glance across the whole timeline and see which characters receive more focus or too little as well as how long the gaps are between character appearances.

The Mac versions of Aeon Timeline and Scrivener integrate fairly well from what I've read, but I think the Windows versions don't. Hopefully, 2.0 will take care of that.


Myth Weaver
I'm going to check out the trial, and I am curious to see how it functions with Scrivener. That could be interesting. Thanks for the info.
The binder in which I keep my story has a nice accordion style folder in it. I have each slot labeled for a specific category. In each category are sheets of parchment on which I've recorded all the necessary information.


I have absolutely no organizational system for my writing! Aside from the main Word document where I write most of my notes as I go along, I have countless other places where I store notes (and don't necessarily remember where they are). Let's see...where are my notes now....

My phone, for one, has a notes app with a file labeled STORY NOTES, but sometimes I forget that's supposed to be reserved for, y'know, actual notes, and put my grocery list or a list of books I need for a school paper in there. It's kind of hilarious when I'm looking for the stuff I wrote on a scene and instead find "Dozen eggs--NOT THE 3-DOLLAR KIND" or "Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, by Paul Koudounaris (call number???)" or even "7.60 in library fines, remember cash".

I use my sketchpad for notes too, even that takes away room for drawings. There's something about a clean, blank sheet of sketch paper that makes it easier to write down my ideas, brainstorm, and connect concepts.

I also have a big blue notebook that lives in my school backpack, for those moments when I need to write notes down but my phone/laptop are dead. Or I'm in class and my freedom to use technological devices is being suppressed by the tyrannical overlords known in most colleges as "professors".

When I first started writing, I used this crazy-ass organizational technique which I called the "binder method". It was really stupid and it didn't work. Basically, I would take a binder, and put a page in it for each aspect of writing I thought was most important. One page was for plot, one for characters, one for notes, etc. I quickly figured out it wasn't going to work, as I only had half a page at most devoted to laying out the plot and like five pages of notes. So I ditched it.