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Personal Wikis and Worldbuilding

Husband and I went to our first San Diego Comic-Con this summer. It was definitely an experience; we spent at least 50% of each day standing in line (which most often meant assembling at least 2 hours before the event we wanted to go to), and didn’t go to any of the big panels that end up on YouTube or in fandom news coverage (mainly because doing so would have required getting in line the day before). But oddly enough, sitting down on a convention hall floor with your laptop for 2 hours can be a productive place to get work done (I did my first chapter-by-chapter outline of “Big Book #1,” which is looking more and more like it’s actually going to be Trilogy #1). I also got to meet 2 of my favorite authors, have a brief conversation with one of them about writing (and get a silly picture taken), and go to a few panels to hear SF/F authors talk about their craft.

In one of these panels, the one that collected 9 epic fantasy novelists (the group in which I’m counting myself these days), the moderator asked the panelists a question that I’ve long pondered myself: “How do you keep your world straight?”

Although the tale I’m telling is (I think) fairly unique in some of its aspects, there are meta-elements that it has in common with most modern fantasy epics: namely, those in keeping with a very large scope. Right now, I’ve easily got enough material for three 300,000+ word books (and maybe more than that; see above note about Big Book #1 turning into Trilogy #1…), which includes a very large cast, a bunch of different locations, and bits and pieces of many different cultures/languages/histories/etc. So as you might imagine, I was interested in the authors’ responses 🙂

Everyone had their own approach, of course, but the one that stuck with me (which I, red-facedly, don’t remember who to credit with) was the person who said that they used a personal wiki to keep their world organized. This is a mini-website, built on the Wikipedia model, but with one big difference: it’s hosted on your local machine. Which means that not only is it not publicly available on the web, but it’s still accessible when you’ve shut your wireless access off in order to actually get some writing done (not that I do that… ever… always…)

Basically, my goals in starting my little wiki were twofold:

a) to keep me more consistent. When I figured out the betrothal rituals for my character’s culture, I made a page called “Betrothal” and wrote down the details. This means that the next time we see someone get betrothed, in 200 pages or so, I won’t have to stop and think “…wait… did I already decide how this goes?”

b) perhaps more importantly — to save me having to scroll back through hundreds of pages of text hunting out details. I’ve already lost track of the number of times I’ve caught myself looking for things like “…wait… what color are his father’s eyes?” (Blue, if you were wondering. So are my hero’s. His mother’s are brown. Important stuff, right? ;))

I’m still in the early stages of figuring out how to use the wiki, but here’s some of what I’ve done with it so far:

  • Character homepages: Each of my existing “main” characters has a page which includes things like their description (usually copy-pasted right off the page(s) where I’ve written it), mannerisms, bits of backstory, and backstory questions still to be answered/figured out (yeah, I know you’re supposed to have all of this stuff sorted out before you start writing, and all your worldbuilding done, too, but that’s not the way I fell into this project. Oh, well.).
  • Place homepages: A repository for things like maps, geographic details, and more technical stuff (I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few months hunting down websites to figure out things like how many people you need in a medieval village to support an inn there; good to have those links in one place along with all the notes I’ve come up with on my character’s hometown).
  • Chapter homepages: The most useful thing for me so far. My goal is that at some point soon, each chapter I’ve written so far will have a page summarizing what happens in it and how each scene is advancing the overall plot of the novel. This not only lets me feel like I’m not writing random scenes that aren’t connected to anything, but (I hope) will come in handy when it comes time to revise, someday, and I start cutting things. It seems like it’ll be useful to be able to quickly look somewhere and say “oh! if I cut that scene, THESE are the sixteen things that I’ll have to introduce in other places because they become important later!”
  • Random cultural stuff: I have a calendar page on my wiki. And a page on marriage rituals. And a page describing the layout of the temples in the major religion that’s been lurking around the edges of my plot thus far. Basically, any time I drop a paragraph of info-dump exposition into my book, I try to make sure it’s also reproduced here. Saves time on hunting for it later.

I don’t yet have a consistent system for updating the thing — I’m trying very hard to avoid the trap that the pro writer at Comic-Con mentioned, of letting it turn into a time sink (spending an entire afternoon filling in details on your book wiki and thereby feeling like you’ve gotten writing done… if you do that every day, it gets to be a bit of a stretch) — but my goal right now is that after I’ve reached the first big plot break in my book (which is coming, I fervently hope, at the end of this next chapter — unless the book decides it needs another chapter first…), I will take a week or so and get the wiki formally “assembled.” All of my scrambled backstory notes, scribbled maps and bits of half-assembled worldbuilding — at least, what I’ve got for the novel so far — will be in a single place. And then I will proceed boldly forward in a more coherent fashion.

That’s the hope, anyway. We’ll see how it goes; maybe I’ll need to go back to next year’s Comic-Con just to have three days’ worth of organizing time sitting in line.

How about all you others out there in the F&SF-writer-verse? How do you keep your fictional universes straight?

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3 Comments

  1. Kirsten

     /  September 16, 2012

    What software/service/whatever do you use for your personal wiki? Do you like it?

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    • My software consultant picked MoinMoin; it’s pretty intuitive (though it’s yet a THIRD set of wiki conventions, to go along with Wikipedia’s and Wikidot’s ;)) Doesn’t let you do anything fancy (or, at least, the learning curve on fancy things is fairly non-intuitive) so it’s not as pretty as what we have set up on Wikidot, but it gets the organizing job done.

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  2. Careful now, your fierce organizational skills are showing! 😛 The one thing that I’ve learned, over and over again – every time I set foot within the pages of my own story – is that I deeply regret that I chose to write an epic, secondary world story, for the exact reason you’re discussing here: the need for a high level of attention to detail and organization.
    So, reflecting on how I kept everything straight just reveals how I subconsciously knew that from day one – because I clearly took every step necessary to limit how much I would need to keep track of! I think my biggest shortcuts were in placing recognizable culture where I could. But on the stuff I couldn’t shortcut, I kept a separate document where I put all the details I knew I’d want to have easy access to. For instance – multiple moons, each of which have /three different cultural connotations/. Sheesh.
    In hindsight, a wiki would have been a lot cleaner (and probably funner!).
    🙂

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