Much like the hard copy story bibles I’ve mentioned previously, digital versions have their flaws, too: your laptop might run out of battery when you need your notes the most, or your hard drive could crash and destroy all your hard work. Online resources will no longer be accessible unless you pay a small fortune for a data plan or can access free WiFi when you’re out and about.
However, they also have many things to recommend them:
- Laptops are portable so you can write anywhere,
- they can store both your manuscript and your notes so you don’t have to carry a miniature office in your backpack,
- they can grant access to research on the fly,
- and it all fits into a compact size and weight that won’t break your back (or your bank) on supplies.
- (If you buy a wireless keyboard, you can even do the bulk of your writing on a tablet.)
Finding software that can actually help you write and organise your notes can be tricky, though, and often involves hours of trialling apps until you land on one that suits you best.
So where do you start, and how do you choose?
Some writing apps are designed not just for actual writing but also for helping you store and organise your notes.
OS: Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS
Cost: $45 ($19.99 for iOS version)
Scrivener has to be the most talked-about writing software out there, and it comes at a reasonable price for Mac, Windows, and Linux. I won’t go into detail with it because a lot of writer-bloggers talk about how they use it so I don’t want to beat a dead horse. (All you have to do is look up “scrivener” and you’ll be inundated.)
I tried Scrivener for Windows a long time ago and never got past the trial. It was ugly, which put me off using it, and it just didn’t work for me.
I’ve tried Scrivener again since I got my Mac and it’s so much more customisable. It’s still not as good looking as Liquid Story Binder (which was my writing app of choice for several years), but it’s the closest I’ve come to a Mac-based writing environment that doesn’t just get in my way.
Either way, Scrivener is well worth a try.
When I first got hold of Liquid Story Binder, I used it to store all of my writing notes.
Where Scrivener needs to sync up to external software to enable timelining, LSB has its own mini version. And where Scrivener has a somewhat rigid three-pane structure, you can move LSB’s windows around the screen and still have an inspirational image in the background.
However, as much as I adore the software, it did have its limitations even before the owner stopped supporting it: you can’t use it to create big family trees or hierarchical diagrams, and you can only open so many of those “windows” at once.
It can also be a chore to find a single file in a long list, and having multiple specialist programmes open around it (to do the jobs it can’t) can really slow down your PC.
All that said, Liquid Story Binder is the most powerful writing software I’ve ever trialled, and it’s just as reasonably priced as the more popular Scrivener. Best of all, it works in the same convoluted and messy way as most creative brains — which is to say that you can make the LSB environment work for you and not the other way around.
It’s also pretty right out of the box, which made a huge difference to my wanting to sit in front of my computer screen for hours on end, and you can customise it to look even prettier.
Unfortunately, LSB is only available for Windows and has been unsupported for years, so it doesn’t work past Windows 7.
I have a bunch of Liquid Story Binder tutorials here.
3. Microsoft Word
OS: Windows, Mac
Cost: From $79.99 per year (includes other Office apps)
I wouldn’t consider Word proper writing software because it’s not designed to make the writer’s life easier, but it is a word processor and plenty of writers do use it to store their notes, so it’s worth mentioning.
I’m not sure how the subscriptions work now, but if you have the more expensive versions of the older Windows, you should have access to Word features like bookmarks and revision markup. These features can help you set up an organised story bible (though I used a bookmark system back in university and still found myself hitting CTRL+F to find what I was looking for.)
There are other alternatives to Microsoft Word, of course, and some of them are free.The Mac version is called Pages, and the open source Open Office is highly recommended.
OS: Mac & iOS
Cost: £43.99 (£23.99 for iOS)
For short pieces, I can’t recommend Ulysses highly enough. It has a clean interface, offers free skins in case you want to change how it looks, and I found it simple to learn. (Previous knowledge of wiki markup helps.)
I can’t recommend it for novel writing, though. I found it tricky to organise my notes and scenes in a way that made sense to me. And while the interface is minimalist, it still kept getting in my way.
Maybe if I had more time with the Mac version (which is slightly more powerful than the iOS version), I’d figure out how to make it work for me, but it’s currently just a bit too linear for the creative brain.
Since writing this post, Ulysses announced they’re moving to a subscription model. I disagree with this, but if you’re fine with paying monthly then you might still find Ulysses useful.
5. Other writing software
I’ve trialled various other software and online apps, but none of the ones available on Windows or as browser-based apps really stood out to me so I can’t remember one from the next.
Some are priced very steeply for what they are, while others are free but seem limited in the tools they offer. (That can be a bonus when all you want to do is write, but it’s not great for helping you organise your notes.)
It’s worth poking around various writer forums and blogs to see what others are using. What works for you won’t work for your buddy, and vice versa.
6. Note-taking apps
Some writers adapt apps to their writing purposes rather than seeking apps intended for writers. The most common is Evernote, but don’t dismiss an app you already own just because it’s not designed for writers. See if you can adapt its features to your needs.
7. Content Management Software
I’m writing this on Content Management Software right now.
I don’t recommend paying for your CMS unless you’re going to profit from the contents somehow (such as if you’re a published author and you want to make your story bible public as an extra for your readers).
That still leaves you plenty of options, but it’s up to you to test them out.
I’ve personally tried WordPress.org (self-hosted), WordPress.com (free hosting), and Blogger. Guess which one I prefer. 😉
I found LSB incredibly useful for early world-building, but my notes eventually got cumbersome to the point that I could never find what I was looking for when I needed it.
For me, a wiki is the obvious solution.
- They’re designed so multiple users can create and find content, so they offer a multitude of functions that makes said content easy to create and even easier to find.
- You can search for keywords, or tag pages a certain way, or group them into “folders” to make cross-referencing and organisation cleaner and easier.
- You can create automated lists of all the pages in a particular category for simple indexing. Some wikis even allow you to create complex page lists with a number of options so you can organise your notes very specifically.
For me, wikis are the perfect system for the cross-referencing, checking, and quick-finding of data that I want from my story bible.
There are quite a few to choose from, too:
Cost: Free plus whatever you pay for hosting
PmWiki is my wiki software of choice because it’s the easiest I’ve tried to both set up and run.
It is self-hosted so you’ll need to shell out a monthly fee, but most hosting providers offer Softaculous via the control panel now which means installation is as easy as clicking “install”.
If you’re also a graphic/web designer like me, you can create themes on PmWiki very easily. I had great fun redesigning my story bible for my Guardians trilogy with massive drop-down menus and a gorgeous banner to help inspire me whenever I sat down to write new entries.
While there are tons of add-ons I’ve found immensely useful in the past, I’ve ultimately decided to use just the basic functionality of PmWiki itself to reduce maintenance.
PmWiki is certainly the easiest wiki platform I’ve tried that also gives you incredible creative freedom right out of the box.
Cost: Free plus whatever you pay for hosting
If you’ve ever trawled through Wikipedia or edited any of the pages there, you’ll already be familiar with this one. I can’t say much about MediaWiki, though, as I’ve had only limited experience with it (none of which was pleasant).
I find the way MediaWiki organises pages completely unintuitive, but it offers another method for writers who think differently than me. Likewise, I found customisation far more difficult than PmWiki, but it will suffice if all you need is the base or ready-made themes.
One of the selling points of MediaWiki for me is the templates. You can set up massive profile sheets and use them to pre-fill new pages so all your characters and species look the same. Having the information in the same place on every page makes it much easier to find at a glance, and it ensures you don’t forget to add vital details.
10. Obsidian Portal
Cost: Free or $4.99 for premium
Obsidian Portal is a free, hosted wiki. It’s aimed more at roleplayers and game masters than at writers, but it’s a beautiful bit of browser-based kit and it’s got almost everything you could possibly want in a free wiki:
- It looks spectacular.
- You have a choice of free ready-made themes to make it your own.
- Pre-built templates for things like characters.
- And even a story log you can use for your plot or timeline.
There are extra features you can pay for, but you shouldn’t really need them.
The best thing, besides being able to access Obsidian Portal online from any device and having an inspiring environment to write your notes in, is that you can sign up with multiple email accounts and create a wiki for every writing project you have.
However, as with any free wiki, you can’t guarantee that it will always be available to you. Sites like these can disappear and don’t always have the option to backup or export your data first.
11. Free hosted Wikis
I wasn’t really impressed with the looks of either, which is why I went with the far more customisable PmWiki for Elysian Fields, but they’re fine for basic needs and they take the hard work out of managing your notes.
As with Obsidian Portal, I don’t think either allow for privacy and they can just as easily drop out or disappear for good. Likewise, they don’t seem to provide quite the same categorisation features as the self-hosted platforms, but they’re still worth checking out.
12. Desktop Wikis
Type: Desktop installation
Check the comments of that article for more options.
Have I convinced you yet?
I’ll post another day showing you how I set up my own story bible on PmWiki. For now, I want you to consider some things:
- What do you need from a story bible?
- What system do you think would suit you best?
- How much time do you have to trial new software?
- How much money do you have to spend on whatever system you choose?
Explore your options. See if you have any better luck Googling for examples than I did (and share with the class if you do!)
Let me know how you organise your notes now, and if you have any plans to change your system now you’ve seen other options. I look forward to hearing how you all set up your notes so you can read them back when you need them. 😉