This past week, I’ve been talking in my reader group on Facebook about keeping track of fictional worlds. Since compiling the world guide for Dragonfire – which was a seemingly endless job – I knew I needed a better system. I’ve been using a new tool this past year, mostly for DragonFate, and am pleased with it. Since people were interested, I thought I’d share that here, as well.
I’ve tried a lot of methods for keeping track of my worldbuilding and character lists. The tried and true is a stack of index cards. Each character gets a card with his or her pertinent details. Locations that recur get a card, again with any mentioned details. I still use index cards for Flatiron Five Fitness and Flatiron Five Tattoo. I use a highlighter to mark the side of each card with that character or place’s first appearance in the series. (The index cards are lined. On the right edge, I colour between the first and second line for anything in book one. Between the second and third line means that element or character is introduced in book two, etc.) This means I can easily grab all pertinent cards, and also helps me find the first written description of any given element in the book manuscript.
This works well for contemporary romances but I find that paranormal romances have too many elements. This index card system gets overwhelmed quickly and doesn’t offer me enough ways to search for details.
I’ve tried other systems like Scrivener but have settled on this one, called Plottr, for the moment. I don’t want to create in the software, as I’m perfectly happy to use Word for that — actually, I’d be happy with a typewriter or writing longhand. I prefer as little interference from tech as possible when I’m writing.
Plottr is intended for plotting a new work, but I don’t plot in such detail in advance. I use it as a worldguide. I compile the timeline for each book after it’s written. This is kind of backwards, but it works for me. Let’s have a look.
Here’s the series page from Plottr for DragonFate. I need to update the covers since the second two now have gold type instead of grey, but here you can see the series at a glance. Each book has its own detail page but I like being able to see the series. (And yes, there are more books below this, but you can’t see them yet!)
Here’s the plotting page for Dragon’s Mate.
The timeline is a grid, almost like a spreadsheet. You can add as many columns to the right as you want and as many rows at the bottom as you like. The default is for each column to be a chapter, and the scenes to cascade below that, presumably in order. I have more than one plotline in the series, and want to track them in order of events. I also don’t plot by chapter. There are a number of templates included in the software for plotting, but for me this is more about tracking the series once each book is written than plotting in advance.
The timeline is more important to me, so I put it in the top line. The chapter line is a reference to the book manuscript, in case I want to double check any detail. The green line is the main plot: in this case, Hadrian and Rania’s firestorm and romance. There are two longer slow-burn story arcs in this series, and they’re tracked below: Sebastian and Sylvia, then Theo and Mel. There are a lot of magickal elements and items in this series and I track them on the next line. Finally, I track mentions of the rest of the Pyr. (Ignore that box with the dotted outline on the last line: it thought I wanted to add an item when I was taking the screen shot.)
Each box is a scene, and I list them in order from left to right. I end up with 70 columns or so for each book, but I can find anything later and quickly.
If I click on one of those scenes, like the very first Fae Attack, that opens a detail card:
Here I can add a more detailed description of events, plus I can choose the characters in the scene from my character list, and choose the location from my list of places. This means that later, I can filter the timeline by character or location. This is hugely useful when cross-checking what secondary characters have witnessed or heard. (I don’t use the tags as yet.)
Of course, I can look at characters or places and get a similar card for details. Here’s the card for Arach.
The character list is sorted into groups – this is the list of main characters, but there are secondary and other characters. I’ve added a field for “kind” so I can keep track of my shifters. On the Character page, I can filter by kind or by specific words, which helps me track (for example) the selkies that I’ve specifically named already in the series. I put unnamed characters here as well – “Nameless Wolf Shifter” – and they often get names later.
I like the sort and filter functions. If I forget the names of Rania’s twelve brothers, for example, I can just sort by name and scroll down to “Rania’s brother”.
There are other options to display your plot as well. I use the timeline, but here’s the outline that can be compiled from the timeline.
The colored boxes indicate which storyline the scene is from.
You can see on the menu bar that there’s a display for Places, which is similar to the one for Characters that I showed you above with Arach’s listing.
In my version of the software (which is older) the book list isn’t automatically populated for each location. It seems this feature could be easily added and it may have been since I updated my version.
When I set up a new book in Plottr, the next one in the series, I copy the plotlines – they’re the same for each book. In the first column, I list the outstanding items or status of each and also the goal for that line in the next book. So for the next book on the Magick line, I’ve noted that the gem of the hoard is destroyed and that Maeve is a lizard, Fae is no longer a separate realm, the Fae weapons that slice between realms are destroyed, and the Regalian magick is gone. One question is how earth magick has reasserted itself. Another is what happened to Bryant. A third is what happened to the earth magick charms mentioned in Dragon’s Heart that were given to species of Others. And on and on. This will be modified when the book is done and I create the final timeline for it, but gives me a snapshot of what I need to address (or can consider) in the next book.
One of the great things is that as I move deeper into the series I can easily locate all previous mentions of the two longer arc stories. I’m compiling a timeline for Sylvia and Sebastian, for example, which includes all mentions of their interactions so far – and the gaps – with dates and locations. That will make it easier for me to see where I can fill gaps and list questions that are outstanding. I’ll do the same for Mel and Theo, as well.
Plottr also has an export function to Word which I haven’t tried yet. That would make it simpler to compile an actual world guide when that time comes.
I’m sure that I’m only using a small percentage of this software’s capabilities, but it’s working well for me. I find that many applications are almost overwhelming and tend to focus on what I need to get done instead of exploring all the options. Because it is essentially a spreadsheet, this one makes the most sense to me. (I always want to lose myself in the story, not in the tool.)
There’s a peek behind the scenes for this week! I hope you found it interesting, or, if you’re a writer yourself, that it gave you food for thought.